At one time, the state’s bears were largely confined to the Adirondacks, Catskills, and Allegheny Plateau. During the past two decades, however, they have spread to every county outside New York City and Long Island.
As a result, the number of bear complaints has risen dramatically in recent years. In most cases, bears in search of food—such as crops, bird seed, and garbage—cause property damage. Occasionally, they might break into a residence, attack pets, or act aggressively toward people.
“The draft management plan calls for maintaining the bear population in the Adirondack region at its current level,” DEC Wildlife Biologist Jeremy Hurst said. “However, currently bears are inhabiting and causing damage in the Tug Hill and St. Lawrence Valley in areas that are currently closed to bear hunting. DEC is proposing to open these areas to bear hunting to prevent bear population growth and maintain a low-density population.”
Also, DEC says the controversial use of traps, dogs, and bait, all currently outlawed, should be reconsidered to spur interest in bear hunting. Fewer than 10 percent of New York big-game hunters actively seek bears. Most simply stumble across them while deer hunting.
The proposals are found in the draft “Black Bear Management Plan for New York State 2014-2024,” the first-ever statewide plan for black bears. After reviewing public comments submitted in January and February, DEC could revise the plan.
In the Adirondacks, the department is proposing only to move up the start of the bowhunting season a few weeks to coincide with the start of early bear season.
DEC estimates that the Adirondack Park has three thousand to four thousand bears—about half of the statewide population. Each year, on average, hunters take about 550 of the Park’s bears. A record 1,370 bear were taken in 2003. In that year, natural food was scarce, so bears left the deep woods in search of food in the lowlands and agricultural areas.
Larry Master, a wildlife scientist who lives in Lake Placid, said he’d like to see less bear hunting in the Adirondacks to give the regional population a chance to grow. Citing a 2001 study by the American Society of Mammologists, Master said some northern states have one bear per four square kilometers, a ratio that would allow for at least six thousand bears in the Adirondacks.
“I would like to see the bear population in the Adirondacks be allowed to grow somewhat to allow more folks the opportunity to see bears in the wild,” said Master, retired chief zoologist for the Nature Conservancy and NatureServe. “I would propose to do this by eliminating the early bear hunting season and not moving, as proposed, the bowhunting season to an earlier date.”
“I think we are a long ways from seeing such conflicts grow to anywhere near intolerable levels,” said Master, who is on the Adirondack Explorer board. “I have three to four bears resident on our 135-acre preserve during blueberry season in late July and early August, and I have no conflicts. It’s a treat to see them, and they run at the sight of people.”
But DEC warns that increasing the bear population could lead to more conflicts. “Bear populations generally exceed human tolerance levels before they exceed habitat carrying capacity,” Hurst said. “Allowing the population to grow in the Adirondacks will create greater potential for human-bear conflicts, particularly during years when natural foods are scarce.”
The Adirondack Council is concerned about DEC’s possibly allowing hounds, bait, and traps to hunt bears. “We are not prepared to support the DEC moving forward with any of these methods,” spokesman John Sheehan said.
At present, Maine is the only state that allows bear trapping. It must be done with cable-type foot snares—not old-fashioned steel traps—that must be checked daily.
In 1990, the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sued DEC over the use of dogs to hunt bears, resulting in a ban on the practice. Two years later, the legislature passed a bill that would have repealed the decision, but Governor Mario Cuomo vetoed it.
Chuck Parker, president of the New York State Conservation Council, said baiting and the use of dogs are tools in managing bear populations. “The hunter will appreciate the increased opportunity to hunt bear, and we recognize our role in sound bear management,” he said. “I support hunting bear over bait and with dogs as sound and effective methods. Giving the sportsmen an increased chance of success will increase the participation in bear hunting.”
Both the Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club say that public education is crucial to minimizing bear-human conflicts. They say it’s easier to change the habits of people than alter a bear’s behavior.
“In many cases if a bear has to be destroyed, including cubs, it’s usually the fault of humans that have been careless about leaving food out,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.
Simple steps such as eliminating bird feeders or using bear-resistant canisters when camping can prevent problems. In 2005, DEC began requiring overnight backpackers in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness to store food in bear-resistant containers.
“We’re OK with removal of bears and controlling them around urban areas,” Sheehan said. “In rural and semi-rural places like the Adirondacks, we prefer that public education would take precedence over removal. Education has to be at the forefront of the plan.”
The installation of concrete food shelters at state campgrounds and the closure of landfills and transfer stations have helped eliminate conflicts as well.
“When my kids were one, two, and three, we used to go to Long Lake dump, and there would be ten bears out there,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. “There would be fifty people watching. It was quite a scene.”
Bauer said Protect has no evidence to suggest that reducing bear numbers outside the Park would lower their population within it. “We don’t find anything that raises a red flag,” he said.
Woodworth said he believes the Bear Management Plan is a “sensible approach” based on a wealth of scientific data.
Dan Plumley, a partner in Adirondack Wild, said he’d like the management plan revised to include more information about the bear’s niche in the Park. Although bears are omnivores, they sometimes act as predators. “What is the bear’s role as a top predator?” Plumley asked. “We would like to see the report expanded to include more information about the full role of black bears in the forest ecology.”
Photo by Gary Lemmo.
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.