Getting Along with Bears

For a couple of wildlife photographers, peering out the window one spring morning to see a mother bear and two cubs in the backyard seemed too good to be true. My wife, Barbara, and I have photographed animals and birds in the valleys of Yellowstone, canyons of Utah, marshlands of Florida, and woods of Quebec. Our images range from deer, elk, moose, bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and foxes, to birds that include pelicans, ospreys, turkeys, and loons. And we have photographed bears – though never before in the backyard and never before in Livingston County.

Our relationship with black bears began in 1996, not long after we moved to the town of Ossian, in southernmost Livingston County. In order to photograph the diversity of wild birds, we strategically located a number of bird feeders in the backyard and placed tripod-mounted telephoto cameras in several windows. Through continuous year-round feeding, we were able to film migratory songbirds during spring and summer, and the local residents – in their various phases of plumage – throughout the year. The feeders attracted the traditional moochers as well:  red, gray, and flying squirrels, chipmunks, and the occasional raccoon. It wasn’t until we found the bird feeders in shambles, and the tree limbs from which they hung snapped off, that we realized that a much larger guest had come to dinner.

The evidence indicated bear damage, and a call to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) served to confirm that. Effective wildlife management, and the fact that New York State is now 70 percent forested (it was once 70 percent agricultural) have provided ideal ingredients for the return of black bears. Although black bears have always inhabited the Adirondacks and Catskills, Southern Tier bears are more apt to migrate from the woods of Pennsylvania as that state’s bear population soars. As they do, they are expanding their territories into the woodlands of the southern Finger Lakes region.

Black bear activity is most noticeable in early spring when they emerge from their winter dens. After many months of fasting, finding food is a primary concern. At first they graze like cattle to gently awaken dormant digestive systems. Later they’ll eat anything from honey to road kill. Sunflower seeds, especially the black-oil variety, are high on their list of preferred foods and attract bears to backyard bird feeders. We have had several different bears in the yard and on the deck at least 15 times!

On April 21, 2001, DEC wildlife personnel from Region 8 live-trapped a 6-year-old female, or sow, in our backyard. She was sedated, examined, ear-tagged, and fitted with a radio collar. When released a few hours later, she hightailed it and was not seen in the area again. Three weeks later her signal was pinpointed 35 miles away on the opposite side of the Genesee River. On March 13, 2002, after a helicopter search using telemetry, she was located again – in her winter den with two newborn cubs – not very far from where she was initially trapped the year before.

Because of our involvement in the previous year’s capture, DEC officials invited us to attend and witness what proved to be a truly memorable experience. Under the direction of Albany-based black bear specialist, wildlife biologist Lou Berchielli, the sow was once again sedated and examined. When she was trapped the year before, after recently emerging from another den, she weighed 175 pounds. At this examination she tipped the scales at 215 pounds, which is still about 30 percent less than what she weighed when she entered her den in November. Even so, she appeared substantially larger than she did a little less than a year before. Bears do not eat while denned and survive on stored body fat accumulated beforehand.

Not so with cubs. At birth in early February, they weigh about 9 ounces, which is roughly the size of a chipmunk. When these cubs were examined at an estimated six weeks of age, the female was 6 pounds, 4 ounces and the male weighed in at 7 pounds even – quite a testimony to the nutrition of mother’s milk. Before denning last fall they would have approached 100 pounds each – a further testimony to being “hungry as a bear.”

Female black bears typically give birth to two cubs every other year, although triplets are not uncommon among older, healthy sows. Females generally weigh between 150 and 300 pounds, depending on age and the time of year. Males, or boars, are somewhat larger and range between 250 and 400 pounds. The New York State record is held by a boar taken by a hunter near Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks – 765 pounds. Boars do not participate in child rearing and have even been known to kill their own cubs. Cubs will stay with their mother, who will fiercely protect them, for about one-and-one-half years. She’ll leave them when she’s ready to breed again.

Wildlife biologist Jim Fodge and wildlife technician Greg Fuerst, working out of the DEC office in Bath, spearhead Region 8’s bear study projects. At any given time they can be monitoring at least a half dozen different bears – some with cubs – based on radio signals and reports from people who see them. Even though they both enjoy seeing the black bear return, the biggest concern they share is the interaction between bears and people. As the bear population expands, so does the potential for bear encounters.

Feeding bears, intentionally or otherwise, invites the risk of property damage or injury and can lead to the necessity of having to destroy a bear. Bird feeders, including hummingbird feeders, as well as pet food, garbage, beehives and barbeque grills top the list of the things that could bring bears into your yard. Jim Fodge is quick to reference the DEC policy on bear feeding: “A fed bear is a dead bear.” He also notes that, “after April 1st, bird feeders become bear feeders and should be taken down if bears are around.”

Getting along with bears requires some forethought and precaution. We’ve had to curtail summertime bird feeding, keep garbage out of sight, and otherwise increase our awareness. Black bears are not generally aggressive, but a sow with cubs can be unpredictable. That thought evokes an eerie feeling, especially when walking to the roadside newspaper tube at five in the morning.

by John Adamski
John Adamski is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in outdoor and wildlife subjects, and Western Americana. He lives with his wife Barbara, also a wildlife photographer, in the middle of a thousand acres of woods in northern Steuben County, having recently moved south from Livingston County.

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