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Bears taking advantage of early spring


Officially it’s still winter, but try telling that to Whistler’s bears.

Local black bear researcher Michael Allen reported this week that at least one bear has emerged from winter hibernation.

Allen found a fresh bear day-bed and tracks leading to and from the day-bed about a kilometre from the landfill in the Whistler Interpretive Forest. He discovered the tracks on Feb. 28, but they could have been there for a few days prior to that.

The earliest bear activity Allen has recorded in 10 years of studying Whistler black bears was on Feb. 27, a few years ago.

Most black bears in the Whistler area emerge from their winter dens in late March and early April, although mothers with new-born cubs often don’t come out until May. But with the mild winter there may be a lot more bear activity in the next few weeks.

For that reason Allen asks that people be aware of human sources of food that may attract bears. Seed from bird feeders is one source people should keep in mind. Garbage is another. Bears can quickly become habituated to any human sources of food, which can lead to their destruction.

Allen says for the first week or two after bears emerge from hibernation they aren’t too active.

"They generally come out and sleep, lay in the sun," he said. "They go to water to bathe, drink and nibble on skunk cabbage."

An extended period of drought last fall decimated the berry crop and meant many bears didn’t attain their peak weight prior to hibernation. That will likely mean cub production is down this year. Allen says he knows of three mothers that went into hibernation pregnant that don’t have any cubs in their dens. Some of the younger bears may also be a little weaker than normal because they didn’t have as much fat to live off of over the winter.

"They don’t emerge starving," Allen said. "Even if they went into their den underweight they have to wait about a week after emerging before their digestive track gets going again. It’s like a balloon that is filled when they go into hibernation, then it shrinks as the air is released."

The concern is that bears weakened by hibernating at less than optimum weight may be "pushed" toward human sources of food, including garbage that emerges as snow melts.