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Tough year ahead for Whistler's black bears

Resort's ursine population expected to feel the effects of last year's weak berry crop


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As black bears awaken throughout Whistler Valley they are feeling the effects of last year's incredibly dry summer which impacted berry consumption in the high alpine.

Late August last year: The landscape is dry and empty of fall bear food. A large female black bear stands in a light carpet of crinkled clover at 1,000-metres elevation in the heart of the world's largest down-hilling bike park.

Her head bobs rhythmically toward the ground, canines and incisors snipping five mouthfuls of clover in nine seconds. Then there's a few seconds of hesitation for her omnivorous molars to catch up in ingestion.

Curvy through high flanks and a low belly, she is in good condition. Her coat has the remains of the blonde dorsal stripe typical from summer's bleaching of her guard hairs. She is 16 years old and pregnant for the eighth time.

Normally in late August she would be foraging much higher in the mountains — above 1,500 metres — on blueberry and huckleberries. But, for the first time in her life, there are no berries left in the ski area.

Last year, one of the hottest and driest on record, ripened the fall berry crop in summer, allowing bears to consume it before the usual "big feed" through September. Now, she has 60 days before denning with nothing to eat but clover, grass, sedge, and scattered nests of ants and bees.

She continues ripping at the dried leaflets until the sounds of close human voices and thudding bike tires force a pause. Her head sways left, looking 10 metres away toward a bike trail coming out of the forest.

Shouts and dropping bike frames force her to completely turn to face three riders talking loudly and pulling out cellphones. They take five steps with phones raised to their faces. She stands still, watching, clover sprouting from the corners of her mouth. Head sways back to the right and behind as another rider emerges from a clump of trees with a phone raised to their face.

Slowly, her head swivels left to right, ears cupped forward. Music and shouts from many human voices radiate all around her — everything seems louder now.

Ahead is the road and a chairlift turn station. She's surrounded.

Her whole life has been in these mountains, but secure habitat is shrinking each year. She thinks back to her years of human encounters, "they only come so close." She shifts position and begins to lower her head to the clover, one of the three riders takes two steps and begins crouching — too close — the brown, female black bear retreats toward the single rider and the clump of trees. More riders stop and she bounds into the tree island intersected by three bike trails.

People yell, "Look out! Bear!" as she's running across two bike trails and down into a shrub-covered creek. Knee-deep in the stream with high alder stems shielding out the sun but not the sounds, she shudders, yawns and looks ahead along the water, waiting for the stress to pass. This is her life.

Last year's low snowpack, drought, and high temperatures created hardships for bears (and other animals) from early berry ripening (and subsequent shrivelling) to extreme fluctuations in stream flow during low salmon returns plus major degradation to spawning habitat.

I imagine bears are, and need to be, used to seasons of poor food availability, and those bears in good shape prior to denning will certainly have an advantage over thinner and/or immature bears.

Bears that survive these hardships without resorting to non-natural (human) foods likely become more adaptable and successful.

There is no doubt that a future with extreme scales of seasonal weather as a more common experience will shape a different bear especially in rapidly changing environments such as the Sea to Sky corridor.

It's ironic that one of the founding concepts of Whistler — recreation — created the large bear population of 1994 to 2010 due to the enhancement of pre-berry and post-berry foods (clover, dandelions, and sweet grasses) in modified habitats (golf courses, ski trails, sub-division green-up). This meant that female black bear use, survival, and abundance increased, including the subsequent attraction of males for breeding.

Post 2010, we are seeing these recreational habitats intensify with human use, which is lowering the security values needed to maintain bear habitat.

Whistler's bear population will continue to decrease, especially as the ski area/bike park — which still supports the highest density of mother black bears (16) that I have ever seen in B.C. — continues to expand and intensify grooming in berry habitat.

As of March 27, at least two male bears were active. I'm expecting 40-plus bears this spring, though following 2015's tough food year there may be additional mortality of old and young bears.

The ski area's "sub-population," which supports over 70 per cent of Whistler's bear population, should consist of: Sixteen adult females (11 of which are due for cubs, nine yearlings, nine two-year-olds and 10 adult males, for a total of 44 animals.

We did lose Amy, the brown mother, plus three cubs. Two of her cubs were likely cannibalized by male bears on Blackcomb (following her return from translocation) then the mother and daughter were destroyed near the Riverside campground last fall.

Two mothers, Echo and Mya, also lost one cub each from two-cub litters during the spring breeding season. Echo was seen repeatedly in the fall without her remaining cub, so it is possible that some mothers have pushed cubs away in the fall following a very poor year of food, possibly thinking their own survival is more important for future cub production than the demand of trying to support this litter through a winter with dangerously low fat reserves.

Of the 11 females that are due for cubs, fewer than half may actually have cubs because of the poor food supply last year. But, there will be 18-plus immature (two- to three- year old) bears running around Whistler this year hungry, of course.

My work with bears over the last 23 years is just self-interest and unofficial. You should always check with the local bear society's expert bear panel and/or the Conservation Officer Service for information.


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