The five-year-old girl from Switzerland sat on her dad's shoulders. Her mom stood behind them on the step of the Suburban taking pictures.
The family was watching black bears for the first time in their lives. At 8 p.m. we were halfway up the ski area, cold and quiet with a full moon showcasing the north slope of Whistler Mountain.
A 16-year-old, beautiful, brown mother black bear tears at new shoots of clover and grasses with a slight bobbing movement of the head while two brown, 17-month yearlings on either side of her hungrily attack the clover.
It was the little Swiss girl's birthday and she had a big smile on her face. Beside us, a mother and daughter from Edmonton/Vancouver were talking excitedly (but softly) amongst themselves... this was an early Mother's Day present. Next to me, a schoolteacher from Vancouver that I had worked with (along with her students) many times asks, "Is this Brownie?"
You can feel energy and solitude at the same time.
Bear viewing to me, after 16 years of guiding, is the experience of realizing what bears are, what they have to do and how they have to behave to survive.
Brownie was born and raised on Whistler Mountain. She is a "ski-area bear," just as local as any one of the veteran pass holders — perhaps more. Head raised to the darkening sky, scanning for threats using perhaps the best nasal passage of any animal in the world, she senses nothing, though just three hours ago this area was bustling with the Whistler Bike Park's first day of riding.
After the bikes leave she settles down into foraging the lush areas of the lower mountain. This is her fifth litter —12 cubs in total — but only one offspring has survived out of the previous 10 cubs. Now she has two more.
Males killing cubs to force mothers back into breeding and vehicle collisions are the main sources for offspring mortality.
Life is hard for bears. Life should be hard for bears — it's what makes them tough and successful in their adaptability and survival.
Ski-area bears are just that — bears born into a large recreation-dominated landscape. This is not the pristine Great Bear Rainforest, or the remote coast of Alaska; these are bears that are born into environs with surroundings full of so much human stimuli it would be "unbearable" for a normal bear.
Earlier in the evening, we are halfway up Blackcomb when one guest spots the shiny coat of a bear below a snow patch, head raised and looking toward a tree island. Immediately I tell the group to watch the trees, this is likely a mom.
She takes a few steps and sure enough we see the swollen teats behind her forelegs, a sign that she's lactating. As she suddenly lopes upslope 80 metres we see two black, furry, football-sized cubs descend an old-growth mountain hemlock. The tree trunk's deep vertical ridges provide perfect claw-gripping surface for climbing cubs.
I turn in the truck explaining this is Mya, nine-years old, with her second litter of cubs. We see three more bears for a total of nine on the first tour of the season.
The WB ski area supports the highest density of female black bears I have ever seen in B.C., largely due to the earlier years of ski trail development that altered closed forests into a mosaic of diverse openings and high-quality edge habitat.
Ski-trail openings were seeded with clover and grasses to prevent erosion thus, indirectly, creating a full-on seasonal menu for bears. In the last 20 years, 26 adult females have been identified producing a total of 161 cubs within an area less than 100 square kilometres.
In 2014, nine mothers produced 13 cubs-of-the-year and five mothers pushed away six yearlings (2013 cubs). Only two cubs were lost in 2014. This spring I'm expecting those five females that had yearlings (in 2014) plus three maturing (four-plus years) daughters to potentially emerge with cubs.
So far this spring, five mothers in the ski area emerged with six yearlings and two cubs (Alice plus one yearling, Michelle plus one yearling, Brownie plus two yearlings, Bella plus two yearlings and Mya plus two cubs of the year). There is one black mother at Rainbow Park in the valley with one yearling.
Eight males have been identified in the valley — five adults and three subadults (less than four years old), and one subadult female in the ski area for a total of 24 different bears.
I'm expecting another 25-plus bears.
Male bear abundance continues to drop (since 2010) due to conflicts with people/garbage. This summer could see another drop due to a potentially poor berry crop from drought conditions.
Be cautious of bear activity at irrigated green-up areas (golf courses, parks, backyards) — it's dry out there already.