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Twenty years of bear research

This field season likely to see lowest bear population



On a hot July day I lock my bike to a tree and walk 100 metres to a clearing at the south end of Whistler. Ravens and seagulls command the air space. As I reach the opening a wave of foul air floods my nostrils. From the edge, I look over large trenches of partially buried garbage. I take my usual spot high on a timbered outcrop where I can see the entire perimeter of the clearing.

One bear is already sitting along the berm surveying the area. From 6 p.m. until dark I will identify and count how many bears arrive, feed, interact with each other, and exit or remain into nocturnal feeding times.

The first hour five bears arrive, the second, four bears and in the last hour before dark...the bear's favourite time to "creep in" during the crepuscular or twilight period, nine more bears arrive. Before me are 18 bears. I am stunned. I point my well-used Konica camera at the landfill and snap my largest number of bears to date in one photograph. It is 9:00 p.m. on July 29, 1994.

Now that same landfill is the residential area of Cheakamus Crossing, a micro-community of affordable housing surrounded by hiking and biking trails — all constructed through historic high-use bear feeding and bedding cover intersected with a maze of travel corridors.

There can be little doubt that over the years of Whistler's development the bear population has been forced to adapt and change.

My first night ever at the Whistler dump in 1992 saw four bears in a small pile of garbage. Whistler had not yet begun its development boom, which started in 1994.

In 1992/93, 12 different bears were identified feeding at the dump. By 1994, the volume of garbage quadrupled into filling large landfill trenches and 44 different bears were identified.

From 1994 to 1998, a sub-population of bears developed in the surrounding Whistler Interpretive Forest and Cheakamus River riparian habitats where five adult females established respective bedding areas and visiting times to the landfill. Bear family groups visited mostly in the mornings and afternoons, and males arrived at prime time in the evening, frequently feeding until early morning.

The morning after, I could easily find more than 10 males sleeping on daybeds from half a kilometre to two kilometres away from the landfill in habitats that are now fragmented by Trash, Train Wreck, and Sea to Sky trails.

Resident mothers began producing three-cub litters, which flooded the area with sub-adults (two to three years old) every two years. Aggregations of bears also formed at skunk cabbage swamps along travel corridors into the landfill. Mature and immature single bears, would arrive to wrestle/play and forage skunk cabbage in spring (flowers) and fall (roots). Up to nine different single bears were seen at once.