Black bears prefer waterfront

A Vancouver Island black bear makes its way across a fast moving creek. A new study shows some black bears are hibernating near the beach. Photo by Larry Travis/Raincoast Images

By Judith Lavoie
Times Colonist December 18, 2010

Remote waterfront property has its limitations when it comes to comfortable, long-term winter accommodation.

It’s wet and cold, the noise of crashing waves can be disturbing if you’re planning on snoring away a few months — and there’s always the possibility that packs of wolves will sneak up while you’re sleeping and eat you.

None of that, though, apparently deters Vancouver Island black bears.Scientists have always believed that black bears make their dens in upland areas, but Raincoast Conservation Foundation researchers have made the discovery, reported in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Ursus, that on the west coast of Vancouver Island, black bears are denning and hibernating near the beach, just a few metres above sea level.

“This was very unexpected,” said Raincoast biologist Caroline Fox, who wrote the study with her University of Victoria supervisor Tom Reimchen and Raincoast senior scientist Paul Paquet.

And, if bears are hibernating in stumps and root boles along beaches, that should be taken into account during coastal development or logging plans, Fox said.

“Black bears are highly reliant on these dens. It’s not as if they can break out of hibernation,” she said.

Paquet, who has studied bear dens — inside and out — in several provinces, said the waterfront preference on Vancouver Island seems to be unique. He suspects the knowledge might be passed between generations of bears. And, it’s possible waterfront denning has been happening for a long time, but has not been seen by researchers, he said.

“I have no doubt that there are First Nations people who know all about this, but it’s a new contribution for science,” said Paquet.

The research was carried out near Quatsino Sound on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island and Fox is now hoping to look at other areas.

“We don’t know how widespread it is, but we also found the skeletons of a small cub and an adult black bear, so there’s evidence of long-term denning,” Fox said. “It wasn’t an odd bear doing something unexpected.”

Upland dens are less exposed to weather and predators, Paquet said.

“Sometimes wolves will prey on bears in dens. They excavate the dens and feed on them,” he said.

But the advantage of beachfront property is an instant buffet on the doorstep. The intertidal area has delicacies such as crabs and sand fleas, whereas food can be sparse in the uplands, making the spring wake-up more difficult for hungry and lethargic bears.

Denning research on the coast is more complicated than in provinces such as Manitoba and Ontario, where the weather gets much colder, Paquet said. “I have been in a lot of bear dens in winter, but I don’t do it so much on the coast because, when the weather’s warmer, they are not in such deep hibernation.”

Bears on the coast usually don’t hibernate as long as their counterparts in the interior. In general, bears in B.C. hibernate between December and March.

Investigating a den generally means going in head-first, which can be nerve-wracking, Paquet said.

Often the bears are dopey, but awake when Paquet wriggles face-first into the den.

“I’ve only had one bear come out of the den and it came out really fast and just ran,” he said. “In most cases they are just sleepy and have trouble focusing.”

However, cubs born while their mother sleeps, are usually wide awake.

“I think they’re wondering what the hell is going on. I am the first thing they have seen other than their mother.”

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