Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Adirondack Black Bears

There I was, cruising the VIC’s Sucker Brook Trail in search of spring wildflowers (translation: staring at the ground as I walked along), when to my left I heard a rustle of vegetation. “Ruffed grouse,” I thought, and turned my head, anticipating the explosion of wings as the bird made a hasty retreat towards the treetops. What I saw, however, was no ruffed grouse. It was black, it was furry, and it was galloping away from me a high speed.

My next thought was “someone’s black lab is loose.” Then it dawned on me: this was no lab, it was a bear. A small bear, probably a yearling, but a bear nonetheless. What I saw was the typical view I have of bears in the Adirondacks: the south end of the animal as it’s headed north. If I’m lucky, I’ll see the face before the animal turns tail. And this is how bears are – they fear people. Many people fear bears as well, but unlike the bear, people really have little reason to be afraid of these normally placid animals.

If asked how big a black bear is, the majority of answers will greatly over-estimate the size. The average female black bear is only about 150 pounds, and the average male about 300 pounds. To help people get a handle on this, we created two life-size jigsaw puzzles that we use for some of our school programs, one of a black bear and one of a grizzly bear. When students see the actual size of the black bear, they are usually stunned by how small it is.

The same goes with bear behavior. As previously stated, most black bears will run away from people if given half a chance. Bears become dangerous when they are habituated to people and food. As the saying goes: a fed bear is a dead bear. This is why bear canisters are now required in the Eastern High Peaks region; some bears had learned that hikers and campers meant easy food. Aggressive (bear) behaviors developed. Relocation and negative-reinforcement training had limited effect. But now that food is required to be locked up, negative bear-human interactions have almost become a thing of the past.

It’s not only campers who should take the bear-food problem to heart. Every home-owner, everyone with bird feeders, everyone with compost bins…if you have something that looks like bear food (and remember, bears are omnivores – they eat everything), you have a possible bear attractant. I never put out food for stray dogs or cats, once spring comes my bird feeders come inside, and my compost bin never contains smelly scraps, like meats and dairy products. So far, these measures have worked for me. And you should also keep in mind that feeding a bear is illegal. No matter how badly you want to see one, this is not the way to go.

Black bears (Ursus americanus) are one of the Adirondack’s “must see” animals. Many visitors to the VIC want to see a bear. And now that the dumps have all been replaced by transfer stations, the biggest bear shows in the Park are gone. We tell folks that the bears are out there, but there’s no guarantee they will see one. The ability of large animals to hide is astounding.

Just as many ask if there are bears on the trails because if there are, they aren’t going out on the trails.

Common sense is all you really need if you encounter a bear out in the woods. Those in the know give us a few simple tips on what to do if you run into a bear. First, stop moving towards the animal and make noise – this will probably scare the bear away. Chances are, as soon as it sees you, it will depart. If it doesn’t, you want to make yourself look as big as possible – wave your hands around, hold your coat or backpack over your head and slowly back away. Make noise. This will probably scare the bear away. What you do not want to do is appear aggressive in any way. Never charge a bear – it might consider that a threat. If it doesn’t move on, don’t run. You can never out-run a bear. Bear biologists say that 99.9% of the time, if a bear charges you, it is a bluff. Hold your ground – the bear will likely stop and go away. If, against all odds, the bear should attack, NYS DEC recommends that you fight back with all you’ve got.

Now, I don’t want you to think “Gosh, bears are pretty dangerous; I should stay home.” Life is full of risks. Every day you step out your door is a risk you could be struck by lightning, or hit by a bus, or trampled by a heard of bison. But I wouldn’t bet on it. By all means go out and enjoy the outdoors. Keep your dreams alive that you will see a moose/bear/bobcat. Just remember to use your common sense.

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Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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