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In the Pacific Northwest, black bears are experiencing a housing crisis—and biologist Helen Davis is anxiously monitoring the big-tree market.
Davis has studied bear denning on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island for 30 years, documenting over 150 dens—the vast majority of which involve large old-growth trees. The hollow insides of these trees, and the cavities they create when they fall, are perfect den sites for coastal black bears looking to stay warm and dry. Female bears also give birth during hibernation; dens provide critical shelter to cubs during the first three months of their lives, when they are unable to survive outside. As more and more old growth is logged each year, Davis is nervous for the bears.
Aside from sheltering bears, old-growth forests pump the air full of rich oxygen and store carbon better than young forests. They also house a plethora of species, some of which cannot thrive in other types of habitats, such as marbled murrelets and northern goshawks. In addition, the forests hold immense cultural value to First Nations peoples, who for thousands of years have made use of cedar trees for everything from basket-weaving to woodcarving to textiles. And then, of course, old-growth forests protect the land itself, as they are more equipped to withstand fires, flooding, and landslides than immature forests.
Yet old-growth forests are also highly prized by the logging industry. To date, the vast majority of Vancouver Island’s old-growth forest ecosystem has already been logged, and few black bear dens in British Columbia are protected. Davis is not ready to leave bears out in the cold: using infrared cameras and camera traps, she’s learning everything possible about what bears need for a cozy hibernation so that she can create artificial den alternatives.
Bears, however, can be picky when it comes to their sleeping quarters, and enticing them to use artificial dens is no easy task. Will Davis overcome this Goldilocks syndrome and manage to re-create a den that’s not too big or too small and that feels just right for the bears?