A bad year for berries and bears

You may have thought the summer weather in the territory was crummy, but for some bears, it was deadly.

You may have thought the summer weather in the territory was crummy, but for some bears, it was deadly.

A cold spring in Whitehorse and the Southern Lakes region meant that bears had to wait longer for the berries they depend on to fatten up for the winter.

“The food was late arriving. Our spring was late and also the spring was cold and wet. Generally those types of springs are less productive for berry crops,” said Ramona Maraj, a bear biologist with Environment Yukon.

Grizzlies and black bears had to travel further in search of food. In the most unfortunate cases, they ended up digging in people’s garbage.

Garbage and other bear attractants left on or near property is the prime reason for conflict between bears and humans.

This year 19 bears have been killed in Whitehorse, with another 16 moved out of the area as a result of conflicts.

“People feel that when a bear gets moved, at least it didn’t get killed, and that sort of seems like a good solution to a lot of folks. It’s not a good solution, because that bear … has been moved out of the population and so it’s still a loss to the population,” said Maraj.

“What we’re doing is moving a bear out and we’re putting it in another bear’s backyard. And it’s got to try and make a living in a new area and we’ve got to hope that the other bears make room for it. It’s potentially bringing a bunch of genetics and diseases and those sorts of things that are not really common to another area.”

About 10 to 15 more bears have been moved or killed this year due to conflicts with humans compared with an average year, said Maraj.

Biologists estimate that there are about 16 grizzlies per 1,000 square kilometres in the Southern Lakes area, and about twice as many black bears.

The actual numbers could be lower, said Maraj, based on data collected in an ongoing population study of Southern Lakes grizzly bears.

Moving or killing 35 bears in a year, out of perhaps 300 total bears in the area, is a big deal.

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“It’s not really sustainable for the population for either species,” said Maraj.

“The population has really taken a hit.”

The first male grizzlies come out of their dens in late March. Females with cubs stay in their dens the longest, and may not come out until early June.

It takes a long time for bears to get their systems running again after hibernation.

They will scavenge for any animals that have died over the winter, grasses, overwintered berries, bear root and other vegetation. But their guts are working inefficiently and they continue to lose weight.

Eventually, the bears are able to eat enough to maintain their size, but it’s not until the berries ripen later in the summer that they start fattening up for the winter hibernation.

In the Southern Lakes region, bears rely largely on soapberries to get the late-summer calories they need.

When the berries aren’t ready when the bears are looking for them, they have to look for other food sources. That is what happened this year.

“Bears have had to basically try and find different food resources and so they have been roaming a bit further and they’ve found garbage,” said Maraj.

The Community Ecological Monitoring Program is a collaboration between researchers who monitor wildlife – and the things animals like to eat – in a few areas of the Yukon.

The project collected data about soapberries in the Whitehorse area for the first time this year, but has collected data since 2010 in other areas.

Researchers return to the same bushes every year and count how many berries are produced per stem. This indicates the productivity of the berry crop.

They do the counts in July while the berries are still green, before any animals or human berry-pickers might get at them.

Todd Powell, manager of biodiversity programs for Environment Yukon, said it’s hard to say at this point how the soapberries did this year.

“I’m going to be unfortunately scientific and say that the data is not all in yet, and we haven’t analyzed it and crunched it to give a real determination on this.”

However, his best guess is that the results will eventually show that we had a below average year for soapberry production in the Whitehorse area.

The real issue for bears, though, is not so much how many berries there are, but when they are available. The monitoring program does not look at the timing of berry ripening.

Anecdotal accounts, however, suggest that this year’s berry crop was probably about two weeks late, said Powell.

“That’s enough in the life of a bear to put a challenge on them. Because generally all the new plant growth has gone past it’s best protein levels, rich, green, fresh stage, and that’s when they’re in that looking-for-anything stage.”

There are lots of things that people can do to minimize their impact on the local bear population.

The biggest thing is to keep garbage and anything else that they could eat out of reach.

Barbecues should be kept clean. Compost, garbage, dog food, chicken feed and birdseed should be kept inside or in a locked garage or shed. Bird feeders should be taken down for the summer. Chicken coops should be electrified.

People can visit the Environment Yukon website for information about the grizzly study and more tips on how they can help protect bear populations.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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