FROZEN HUCKLEBERRIES AND HUNGRY BEARS By Michael Allen Black Bear Researcher Water droplets remain frozen on the tips of crisp green huckleberry leaves. A blanket of dry snow collapses the shrub against the ground. Ripe and unripe berries encased in glass-like cocoons of ice cast a crystal-like matrix throughout the shrub — until the cocoons are suddenly shattered by a large brown forepaw. Scooping the leaf shoots upward, a black, wet nose darts through the elliptic leaves. Reddish and purplish-black 80-calorie berries disappear through black lips. With a snort the exhaust from this eating machine is expelled. Frantically the mouth navigates the leaf patterns; eyes searching for ripe-colours and nose sensing for sweet smells of edible ripe berries. The large brown head swings from the shrub and is already focusing on the next as shoots of empty huckleberry fold under its passing belly. Alongside yet another scant berry shrub, the large brown-phase Whistler Mountain resident female sits back on her haunches. She hesitates, looking around — senses someone lying on the ground holding something that makes a click. No big deal — no threat, she knows this one, his smell and voice are familiar. I climb to my feet brushing off the first significant 5-8 cm snow fall from my fleece pants. Jeanie watches me. I look up at her. "Keep looking for berries, some are buried by snow." I walk down through the shrubfield to photograph the phenology (development) of a huckleberry plot. After five steps I glance back, already she is immersed in the white shrubs; feeding sounds and breath reveal her location. Jeanie is amongst a minimum of 12 bears foraging the upper limit (1,600-metres) of berry ripening in the ski area. Huckleberry availability now will have to suffice hungry bears. Continuation of nightly sub-zero temperatures will increase brittleness in berries, causing them to drop. Snow cover may aid in ripened berry preservation by providing insulation from frost. Cold temperatures may also induce insect dormancy, reducing the availability of log/stump feeding sites. Insects such as carpenter ants and termites are a source of protein for bears. As with most bears, Jeanie is active approximately 18-hours per day. She spends her days in circuitous travel patterns systematically searching shrubfields and timber-shrub habitat types for four species of berries — black mountain huckleberry, Alaska blueberry, oval-leafed blueberry, and Sitka mountain-ash. Jeanie's feeding strategy allows her to learn and search many berry feeding sites, as opposed to relying on two or three big shrubfields. Knowledge of many berry habitats dispersed across Whistler Mountain allows her more options for feeding during frequent fall berry crop failures. There are no shortages of berries throughout Whistler's valley and surrounding forests. Wildfire, logging and gladed ski trail development initiate berry shrub regeneration, provided scarification is avoided. Scarification (disruption of the soil) damages rhizomes of huckleberry. Huckleberry shrub abundance is also enhanced from seed dispersal through bear scat. This is evident on many summer-groomed ski trails adjacent to huckleberry-producing habitats. Sucker-type huckleberry shrubs begin growing in clumped dispersion from deposits of bear scat. Berries passing through the bear's digestive tract may receive enough wear to rupture the seed coat for subsequent germination. During October ski area bears will continue foraging on scattered berries and also supplemental green vegetation (clover, grass, sedge and horsetail). Bears may persist in feeding into the onset of snow cover but will likely begin entering dens during late October through mid-November. The forecast for 2000 cub production will be similar to 1999's: zero to low litters due to insufficient weight gain of pregnant adult females. Pregnancies abort in October if females do not gain sufficient weight for cub rearing. Huckleberry crop failures contribute to decreased weight gain. Valley bears will remain active through October with certain bears foraging through November snowfalls. Bears visiting the landfill, especially adult males, usually remain active until early December. The latest non-denning bear activity observed was from a large adult male who was accustomed to feeding at the landfill and waited until the landfill gates were left open for the winter on Dec. 15, 1997. He subsequently fed nightly through minus 15 degree snowstorms until Jan. 9, 1998, when he began moving to his den 13 km from the landfill. Black bear ecology-awareness displays can be viewed at the Whistler Museum and at the Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler Mountain. Bear Update columns are sponsored by Pique Newsmagazine. Anyone with questions or information about black bears may contact me at 935-1176.