Monday, October 7, 2013

Wildlife and People: The Bear Facts

Bear Warning SignIn the Adirondacks, all forms of wildlife have a natural fear of humans. This is the primary reason why hikers, campers, and individuals sitting on their back porch don’t generally see many creatures, despite being outside for long periods of time.

Should a healthy animal detect the presence of a person, it inevitably hides or immediately flees in order to avoid being seen.

While curiosity is a common trait among children and many adults, this attribute is not as strong in wildlife and certainly does not exist in situations when they accidentally stray close to a human. Food and hunger, however, are powerful forces that can, at times, override the better judgment, or natural instinct of an animal to avoid being in the same vicinity as a person. While some critters, like a chipmunk or gray squirrel, can learn to abandon this primal fear after being tempted by a patient person with a bag of peanuts, or two, others like mice or the red squirrel are far more difficult to “tame”. (Getting a vole to eat out of your hand is an exercise in futility!)

As a rule, the black bear is exceedingly wary of humans. This creature has an especially well developed sense of smell that allows it to detect the presence of a person well before that individual comes within sight. The bear’s ability to hear is also quite keen and alerts it to the presence of a hiker, or camper, in the area should the wind be from its back, limiting the ability to use its nose for detecting danger.

Currently, bears are attempting to ingest as much food as possible in their effort to develop the fat deposits necessary to carry them through their 4 to 5 month period of winter dormancy. This year, foraging conditions seem to be good, at least around my house. There is an abundance of grasshoppers, crickets and other bugs along with a healthy supply of apples, wild black cherries and other types of seeds and berries. There also is a good crop of beechnuts that bears eagerly consume for building fat.

Considering the natural wariness of the black bear and the availability of food this year, the incident that occurred just south of Lake Durant a few weeks ago was more than a surprise, especially in light of the fact that there was a trio of bears involved. The fact that the bears followed this lone hiker for nearly a mile along the Northville-Placid trail indicates that their innate fear of humans has been seriously compromised. Since three bears were involved, it implies that these were healthy animals, as sick creatures tend to be less social and stray away from others.

While my knowledge of the incident comes only from an article that appeared in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, it seems to me that this is a case of a sow with two cubs, or maybe three recently independent yearlings that have come to associate a human with a handout. Although the black bear is very fearful of humans, it is not stupid. With repeated reinforcement, a bear can learn to overcome its natural repulsion of people and share the same surroundings, provided it gets fed. This was the case decades ago when open pit dumps existed on the outskirts of villages throughout the Park, and people would come to watch these beasts rummage through the garbage to find scraps of food.

Bears in the Adirondacks are perhaps the best behaved bears anywhere on the continent. While people ordinarily associate bear attacks with only polar bears and grizzly bears, the black bear in other sections of North America has been known, when hungry, to attack a human for the purpose of eating that individual. When reading the account of the incident west of Indian Lake, it seems apparent that the bear did not view the hiker as prey, but only as someone that might provide them with a meal. These are bears that have been fed and prefer the taste of potato chips and chocolate chip cookies to crickets and dried wild black cherries.

Feeding wildlife is never a good idea, except perhaps for providing sunflower seeds for chickadees and nuthatches during the winter, and only during the winter. While it may seem harmless to give a raccoon, fox, deer or bear a handout in order to make it more visible around your camp or home, there can be serious, unintended consequences to such actions. Wild animals that have lost their fear of humans are still wild animals and should never be considered tame. The bad behavior on the part of some critters is more of a reflection of the bad behavior of some people thinking they can help an animal by giving it food, especially if it is hungry.

Occasionally, animals do die from hunger, but that is just as much a part of nature as them eating, mating and giving birth. Nature is a beautiful thing; don’t try to improve on an already great process by feeding wildlife.


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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

3 Responses

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Be afraid of bears. Be very afraid of all animals, especially humans because your odds of being killed by a human animal is greater than being killed by any other animal.

  2. Charlie S says:

    That’s what I always say Peter when people talk negative about wildlife.I say “Us humans do far more damage than all animals combined.” I don’t get the negative attitude towards wildlife except that it has to be ignorance is why people are either afraid of wildlife or would just assume see them dead.It’s a cold world out there oftentimes,even when the thermometer is pushing 90.

  3. Josh says:

    Hunting off the NPT soon, we will try to even the score with the bears.