Sunday, December 25, 2016

Summer of 2016 Was Bad News For Bears

black bear Jean Belanger was starting a climb at the Beer Walls in Chapel Pond Canyon when his girlfriend, Isabel Rodriguez, yelled up to him to come down right away. “That usually means I have a spider on my back,” Belanger said.

But there was no spider this time. Instead Rodriguez had spotted an approaching mother bear and its cub. After quickly descending, Belanger walked a short distance away from the bears and started yelling and clapping. “They didn’t make any aggressive moves toward me at all,” he said. “It was really the packs they were walking toward.”

Bear experts recommend that people do what Belanger did when they encounter a black bear in the woods: make a lot of noise to scare the animal away. Black bears are generally fearful of humans, unless they have come to associate people with food. In these cases, the bears can become bold but will still usually run from people.

In this case, the bears left, and Belanger and Rodriguez headed toward the road. But on the way out, they encountered another cub, which actually got between them. “The way he was bouncing around, he looked like he wanted to play,” he said.

The climbers continued to the road without any incidents, but the encounters did shake them. The bears had shown little fear. “I was wishing I had a can of bear spray,” he said. “They were real close.”

Bear encounters in the backcountry and in residential areas were much more common than usual this summer in the Adirondack Park. Jim Stickles, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said there were about 150 bear complaints in DEC’s Region 5 — which comprises about two-thirds of the Park — as of early September. As a result, the department euthanized a half-dozen bears in the region. There were only ninety complaints about bears in each of the prior two years.

In the backcountry, bears have stolen food from campsites and approached hikers on the trail; in residential areas, they have knocked over bird feeders and raided garbage cans. DEC has received complaints in Saranac Lake, Raquette Lake, Tupper Lake, Chestertown, Keene, Keene Valley, Speculator, Long Lake, Inlet, and Old Forge.

Scientists cite this summer’s hot, dry weather as a big reason for the high number of bear incidents. As a result of the weather, the bear’s natural food sources, such as berries, were in short supply. Also, the lack of rain drew more visitors to the Adirondacks, meaning more people were in bear habitat.

“We started off the year really dry. We didn’t have the snowmelt we normally do, and the berry crops, they just weren’t there this summer, at least not that I noticed, so there just wasn’t available food,” Stickles said.

In Old Forge, which is in DEC Region 6, problems persisted from mid-July into September, but the community traditionally has a lot of bear incidents. “It was busy, but I wouldn’t call it out-of-control busy,” said DEC wildlife biologist Steve Herkins.

Herkins said there was a lot of “fairly typical Old Forge stuff,” including car break-ins and damaged sheds. In one case, the inside of an automobile was completely destroyed when the bear couldn’t find its way out. In another incident, a sow and two cubs entered a house in the middle of the afternoon and encountered the owner. No one was hurt, but DEC killed the bears. Overall, six bears were euthanized in the Old Forge area. A female bear was put to death after she was hit by a vehicle and seriously injured. Herkins said the injured bear could have posed a problem. “It was near someone’s garage underneath a turned-over canoe,” he said. Eight other bears were killed in car accidents in the Old Forge vicinity.

Herkins said the number of bear complaints seems to spike on regular cycles, perhaps reflecting spikes in the bear population. “Every four years we peak … and then the next year the complaints kind of fall right off,” he said.

Herkins said human behavior also is partly to blame for bear incidents. “There are people, you can see it, they are driving around the community at last light, and they are looking for bear and deer, and at least in some of those cases, they are throwing food to those animals,” he said.

In addition, Stickles said vacationers who rent homes for short periods during the summer may not be aware that bears are attracted to garbage, bird feeders, and compost. “In some areas, we’ve been really effective with education,” Stickles said. “Other areas we haven’t been as effective, and we’ve had to remove some bears.”

Bear incidents have long been a problem in the High Peaks Wilderness, especially at popular camping areas such as Marcy Dam, Lake Colden, and the Flowed Lands, but they appeared to be more frequent this past summer.

young black bear“There were hundreds of conflicts back there, and in the past five years, I don’t know if there have been more than a hundred per year,” said Zoe Smith of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which keeps tabs on bear activity in the High Peaks. The nonprofit hires two bear stewards every summer: one is stationed at the Upper Works trailhead in Newcomb; the other visits trailheads near Lake Placid and Keene Valley.

Smith said surveys done by the stewards found that many High Peaks backpackers lack experience camping in bear country and run into problems, even if they bring bear-resistant food canisters. Some people, for instance, discover when they get to a campsite that they have carried in more food than can fit in their canisters.

“So they are doing things like trying to bury their garbage, bury their food, or keep it in their tent instead of pre-packing their canister or finding a ranger to help them do something differently,” Smith said.

Because of the high number of incidents, the Wildlife Conservation Society is thinking about increasing its presence in the backcountry near camping areas next summer.

But even experienced back country users had run-ins with bears this summer because the animals were uncommonly bold. Tom Manitta, a naturalist with the Adirondack Mountain Club, was part of a small group that encountered a bear in July near Slant Rock in the High Peaks. The bear had been approaching other hikers and campers and taking their food, but no injuries were reported.

“The bear knew what it was doing,” Manitta said. “It knew that it could walk up and people would leave food for it. It could get an easy treat, and then it could go to the next group.”

Photo: Black bear by Jeff Nadler, and young emaciated bear rescued by the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge by Mike Lynch.

A version of 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.

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Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues. Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake. Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at

9 Responses

  1. Ethan says:

    Time for an all out DO NOT FEED WILDLIFE campaign. Signs posted with EXPLICIT requirements: Not worded as a request, but a mandate. Next, increase fines dramatically and make them meaningful. People who are privileged to use wilderness recreational areas must learn and abide by the rules.

    • Bruce says:

      I don’t think that deliberately feeding wildlife is as much of an issue as it once may have been, and while they may not be “feeding” the bears, they encourage encounters by not thinking about everything they do as related to food and taking appropriate action. This inadvertent feeding of bears can only increase as more and more people take to the outdoors in bear country.

  2. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Bruce is on the money and very few people actually “feed bears”. Too often though, we don’t realize that other items such as fragrances and aromatic sprays can arouse their curiosity, and result in a conflict.

    Traveling in bear country without bear spray is just plain not smart anymore and with many species getting bolder, the spray can be multi-purpose. Coyote’s are becoming more habituated and although hunting/trapping keeps them somewhat wary of humans, there have been fatalities attributed to them. The relatively recent killing/consuming of a jogger in Nova Scotia is a prime example and a warning to all who dismiss their ability to kill humans……..

    • Ethan says:

      Always something new to learn; I hadn’t thought about “fragrances and aromatic sprays” but glad you pointed that out, Tim.

      As far as coyotes, you’re on a slippery slope with a tinge of fear-mongering about the extremely rare recorded attacks on humans. The young woman who met her demise some years back was purportedly hiking a popular trail where it is believed coyotes may have been fed by hikers. She apparently also made the mistake of turning and running – something that should never be done in a meeting with any predator specie. Yes, coyotes are usually very wary of humans and we should not change their instinctive behaviors by either intentionally or inadvertently feeding them.
      Anyone truly experienced and knowledgeable about coyote behavior knows there is a difference between habituation and food-conditioning.
      Habituation encourages coyotes to accept the presence of humans and there is almost never an altercation (but do keep away from their dens during the birthing season!). Food-conditioning may often cause a coyote to become more assertive in the presence of humans attempting to feed them. It’s ironic that the behaviors of well-intentioned humans too often necessitate the deaths of fed wildlife.

    • Dave says:

      Some perspective…

      Since such records have been recorded – at least since 1900 – there has never been a fatal bear or coyote attack in the Adirondacks. Not one. Zip, zero, ziltch.

      Compare that with how many people are killed in hunting accidents, or by bee stings, or while riding snowmobiles, or in deer\car collisions, or because of falling trees, or by lightning, or… you get the picture.

      • Alfred J. Proofrok says:

        You are SO SOO correct, sir. I have made this point countless times to countless folks who think, with such hubris and solipsism, humans actually are needed to “manage” any wild animal populous. So absurd….

        The only thing more absurd is the notion that coyotes and black bears are a “threat” to humanity. Vending machines kill more humans, every single year, than the combined death-toll of coyotes and black bears in the entire recorded history of North America. Chew on that.

  3. Charlie S says:

    “The young woman who met her demise some years back was purportedly hiking a popular trail where it is believed coyotes may have been fed by hikers.”

    Feeding coyotes on this trail! This is news to me. Who the heck feeds coyotes? And in Canada! I can see Americans feeding coyotes but Canadians. I figgered they were smarter than us.And where did you get that she tried to run? My understanding is two other hikers heard her screams,ran to where the screams came from and saw her lying on the ground as a coyote ran off. Maybe I misread.

  4. Charlie S says:

    “coyotes are usually very wary of humans …”

    I know someone who lives on a hill 1500 feet high in Schoharie County. All old farm fields and woods and rolling hills. So peaceful there! Hardly five cars pass his house in a day. Rural I say. Geese flying over can be heard minutes before they fly over,minutes after they pass….is how quiet it is. The coyote population goes up and down where he lives.So does the rabbit population. Some years he hears and sees lots of them some years hardly any… coyotes and rabbits that is. He’s trapped and shot a few coyotes over the years because he does not like the sounds of fawn’s screaming at night and then finding their mangled remains the next day.

    In the recent past he was up in his woods past his corn field. He swore he was being followed by a coyote,saw movement on the side of his eye. As he stepped out of the woods into the field he had this gut feeling a coyote was following him. He always carries a long gun and a pistol with him when he walks around his property which is quite a large spread a few hundred acres. He told me he started getting goose bumps as he walked faster towards his house (which was quite a stretch away) which he had never done before. He stopped and turned around to look and there was a coyote a few hundred feet behind him. He raised his rifle and at that moment the coyote darted off and over the stone wall and back into the woods. That was the last he saw of it.

    Coyotes are smart and sure,they are usually very wary of humans but…..

  5. Charlie S says:

    Some years back while I was visiting this same property I was in the old big barn.
    (I used to like to go in there to just hang out on the top level where all the old bales of hay were stacked.I used to sip on beers and enjoyed the serenity of the place.I took photos and notes. I’d hang out for hours on end just looking out the windows or checking out the ax marks on the huge beams that held up the structure,or the wooden pegs stuck into the beams. I admired the old pine wide plank flooring which varied in width anywhere from a foot to at least twenty-four inches. I always put my mind to work when I hung out in that barn thinking about the history of the place,what it might have been like in its heyday. Remnants of the past were all over inside this old barn…the farmers old jacket hung from a nail,the names of the neighborhood boys were etched into one of the old wooden stable doors, etc.. I imagined it a busy farm at one time. It has long since been abandoned as a working farm,the old farmer and his wife are long since dead and all of those neighborhood boys are older men now or their names with dates are etched into the headstones at the nearby graveyard…Clark, Wyckoff, Clapper, Keyser.)

    Dusk was turning to dark real quick as I exited this old barn one evening some few years ago. The road was maybe thirty feet away. The land had a downward pitch from the road towards the barn so that as I walked away from the barn my head got more at road level as I walked towards it. As soon as I neared the road I heard nearby,from the opposite side,first one coyote with a soft brief howl then another coyote from another near distance with a soft brief howl. As if I was spotted all of a sudden and they started communicating with each other to plan an attack against prey me. Goosebumps overwhelmed me and I quick-stepped to the house which wasn’t far away thankfully. I am not for certain what those brief howls were all about but what I mention above are the thoughts that came over me at that time.

    I love the sounds of coyotes at night and I do not wish for them to go away as there is an allurement in them to me,but I like when those yips and barks and bays and howls are a long ways away not nearby,especially when I am all alone in the woods.