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Yearling bears get ready to survive on their own

Sixteen bear-family groups counted in whistler


Halfway up Blackcomb, in the thick of an old-growth cedar-hemlock forest, there is a depression — a carpet of soft, flattened moss shaped by something large.

Surrounding the depression are five piles of black, fibrous scat. Silent wind chimes of lichen sway from a north breeze through the timber. Songbirds edge on the morning. It is 3 a.m. and the clouded sky is breaking open. A light glow emanates from the lower valley... one of the world's largest four-season resorts sleeps, yet the hum of human habitation lingers, almost as an awareness (and warning) to the surrounding natural world.

Nestled into the depression is a nine-year-old, 68-kilogram mother black bear. Her legs lie loose and relaxed at the edges while she reclines against the base of an old hemlock.

Her forelegs spread wide inviting two six-kg cubs to climb onto her chest. The cubs are four months old and hungry. Their blue eyes close as slurping and squirming ensues back and forth between six swollen teats. Humming and whining erupts as cubs rotate their snouts trying to extract a steady flow of the high-fat milk. Mother bear lays her head back and slowly closes her eyes.

This is her second litter of cubs, a biological process that's beginning to gain familiarity.

With each movement of the three bears, a soft red glow appears and disappears only less than three metres away. A high-quality remote video camera is recording this intimate setting of mammalian biology that very few humans ever witness.

So far, a minimum of 50 distinct black bears have been counted since March 20 across 80-square kilometres from the big waterfall below Function Junction to Wedge Creek: eight adult males, 16 adult females, five sub-adults (two- to three-year-olds), 15 yearlings, and nine cubs-of-this-year.

There are 16 bear family groups — 12 mothers with 15 yearlings and four mothers with nine cubs in total.

Sub-adults are always under-represented in counts because they are smaller and tend to hide, avoiding encounters with older bears, so they easily use marginal h­abitats.­

The two oldest females have not yet been seen this spring — Marisa on Blackcomb at 24 years and Daisy on Whistler at 21 years. These are minimum ages so each could be one to three years older, and its still relatively early (I worry after mid-June).

In the next few years you will see the loss of potentially three old females, but daughter survival is high if they stay out of the valley.

History has revealed many times that females rearing cubs in the valley do not survive more than two to three years of exposure and behavioural degradation from backyard attractants.

Despite the rapidly increasing high human-bear interface, bear family abundance continues to dominate.

But, since 2010, the abundance of adult males is in decline, with this spring potentially seeing the fewest number of breeding males. So my question is, could this reduce cub production — especially if bears experience a poor berry crop this fall and additional males are removed?

Also, could potentially fewer males interacting aggressively with moms (forcing them to mate early by killing their cubs) increase cub survival? So far I have not sighted any new adult males in Whistler.

The smaller Callaghan sub-population of bears does not interact much with Whistler's bears. Those highly roadway-habituated bears seem to be self-sustaining on spring clover and berry-dominated habitats.

But their behavioural degradation is high because they are forced to forage along a paved road less than 30 metres from passing/stopping vehicles. There is no doubt that the Whistler bear population is at a turning point in its dynamic.

Bear family break-up will begin soon (one mother separated from a yearling in late April), the process where mom pushes 17- to 18- month old cubs (yearlings) away as males approach.

Mothers can instigate break-up themselves, or a sudden aggressive encounter with a male (or multiple males) can force yearlings to trees and mom then leaves with the courting male.

Small (13-32 kg) yearlings are actually safer away from their mother than with her, as males are drawn to her, not usually to lone yearlings. The mating period begins in late May, peaks through June and winds down by mid-July.

The valley berry crop will be early, but there are many areas of post-bloom damage (flowering was too early).

Remember, keep your residence clean; there will be 19-plus immature bears running around this summer/fall and after destroying 12 bears in 2014, it would be nice to give these bears a healthy start to survival.

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