On a sunny afternoon a few hundred metres above one of the highest developments in Whistler –—Kadenwood — a small mother black bear plus two, five-month old cubs graze new clover along a lush ski trail.
The mid-day sun keeps forcing her into the shaded parts of the trail, as she has yet to shed her thick winter coat. Distant construction activity at sites of multi-million dollar homes can be heard from beyond the second-growth conifers that surround the bear family. She pays little attention to the ambient world of human noise. It is certainly not the pristine backdrop of a traditional wildlife documentary, but rather, the world, which for these bears are born into... a modified habitat developed for human pleasure and recreation.
Humans love the mountains but, they modify them to suit their needs... whereas, bears do not.
The afternoon moves on, shadows change direction and mom follows the shade. Cubs play — charging and wrestling — not a care in the world, not even an urgency to graze clover as mom's rich milk fats will sustain their weight gain from birth to first berries in August. With no warning, the first-time mother stops feeding, raises her head and arcs her snout into the sky. She makes one sweeping movement to the closest trees 15 metres away bellowing urgent chuffs and huffs. The cubs are already ahead of her. Climbing is instinctive in black bears... a huge advantage these forest bears have over open-range grizzlies that specialize in digging, not climbing. Dense second-growth forests of 15-centimetre wide trees are all that's left after development... the larger, more secure old growth is gone. The cubs are 18 metres up a western hemlock in eight seconds, their nine-kilogram bodies clinging to a five-centimetre wide leader. Mom follows them up the tree, stopping at five metres. She makes a stand on a seven centimetre-wide tree branch.
Guttural moans flow gently through the forest warning of the potential threat. Mickey-mouse shaped ears arc toward the soft snap of a twig in the dry forest across the narrow ski out. The treed bear family is motionless and silent. Both cubs watch their mother... the last defense against the intruder.
Into the afternoon glare walks one of Whistler's largest males. The healthy, heavy winter coat shines and ripples in the 28-degree sunshine. The massive head lowers to the ground sniffing a pile of small-diameter scat... the mother's. The bony ridge dividing the bear's skull, apparent from a crease through the hair in the middle of the bear's head, indicates the well-developed saggital crest of old age.
Bellows of huffs, guttural grunts, and popping jaws erupt from the forest. The male steadfast, scenting scat and surrounding clover. His two, large, yellow ear tags remain oriented at ground level. The cubs, silent. Their mother, tense, with fright and anger.
The male walks out of the sunlight into the dark forest and charges the tree. He climbs. Mom remains on her branch, head pointed down at the male. The energy that flows between these large mammals is immense. She swats the trunk of the tree and in doing so nearly loses her grip. The male climbs to within 1.5 metres of her body... his 12-cm wide forepaws swipe into the soft conifer leaving deep gouges.
The mother's 70-kilogram body clings to the tree branches and trunk. Legs rigid. The male tries to extend and reach past his body, but hind paws and claws slip down the trunk. His 175-kilogram body is too heavy for the small diameter tree trunk. He slides to the bottom, groaning and whining...the drive to breed now in overdrive.
The mother black bear spasms, foaming at the mouth... her vocalizing growing course and deep. The male stands, reaching over two metres, and stares at the mother. Frustration and fear fills the forest. The male makes two more attempts to climb the tree, but his claws have shredded the conifer's trunk so that there is no more grip. Black guard hair and light-brown underfur remain stuck to the dripping sap. He walks from the base and once again scent-trails the mother's previous movements. Suddenly the raucous noise of chainsaws fills the air as three dirt bikes rip up and pass by the ski trail. The male is gone... this time.
Since April 1, 62 different black bears have been identified along a 78-square kilometre count zone (6x13 km) from the waterfall below Flank bike trail to the mouth of the Green River into Green Lake: 11 adult males (five are tagged), nine adult females plus 13 yearlings (two moms tagged), seven adult females plus 12 cubs (three moms tagged), and 10 sub-adults (less than four years; five tagged). These bears have been identified and counted within this zone, but that doesn't mean they occupy the zone all the time. The population's heaviest density is often measured in spring as snow forces bears to forage throughout valley-bottom and males move in to search for mates.
First mating was seen in the valley (13-year-old brown Amy) on May 29, and in the ski area (23-year-old Marisa) on May 30. Male-female pairs can be seen until late July when berry feeding signals the end of breeding. Bears are polygamous and induced ovulators, so females will mate with more than one male because that leads to higher success in getting pregnant, and males will try to mate with as many females as possible to secure their genetic dominance.
Males will also take the opportunity to kill another father's offspring to induce the mother into breeding. In 2013, seven ski area females lost six of 12 cubs by Aug. 1... largely by males. This spring, so far, I know of no offspring lost.
If you see pairs of bears or any bear, please respect their space, including leashing your dog. Bears will attack dogs, as they have an inherent fear of the social canines.
Due to the lack of heavy spring rains in May, so far in June, bears are grazing closer to people where plants are irrigated and thus, more succulent. They are slowly moving to mid-mountain slopes, but ensure backyards are free of bird feeders, unclean barbecues, and garbage/recycling. Over 30 young bears (less than four-years-old) are now in the population, so if we experience a drought this summer-fall and the berry crop fails, this could potentially begin another cycle of high bear mortality as bears learn about potential garbage sources.