Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The cycle of killing habituated bears continues

black bearSeveral campsites and lean-tos were temporarily closed in the High Peaks Wilderness on July 5 due to an aggressive black bear that had been roaming the area looking for human food.

A day later the state Department of Environmental Conservation captured and later killed the animal.

As DEC officials have often said to me in these situations, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

What does that mean? It means if a bear gets food from humans too many times, it will get habituated to the food. The bear will then continue to seek out food from campers, especially when natural food sources aren’t available such as during dry years. In some cases, the bear will then get too close to people and be considered dangerous. In these situations, bears don’t win. Instead, they are killed.

Outdoor experts will often place the blame on humans for the bear getting killed.

“The bears are not the issue. We are,” said High Peaks Summit Steward Coordinator Kayla White this week. “That bear didn’t have to die. It was killed because of hikers coming to that area.”

Some years the DEC will kill a dozen or so bears because they get addicted to human food. In some cases, the bears get the food from campers. Other times, they get it from homeowners or renters. Most commonly bears get into garbage containers that aren’t secured properly and the situation is accidental. In more rare instances, people purposely feed them. Years ago, I recall a story about a man in Inlet who used to toss raw steaks into his back yard to attract the animals. He was eventually busted by the DEC.

The number of stories I’ve heard about bears getting into campsites, lean-tos and homes must number in the dozens, if not the hundreds. It happens every spring, summer and fall.

I remember one story a guide told me about camping in a lean-to on Raquette River. In that case, the large man awoke in the middle of the night to a bear standing over him sniffing around for food. It left without incident.

In another case, an 80-something-year-old woman from Inlet awoke to a bear eating out of her freezer on the back porch. The woman spent much of that night sitting at the kitchen table with a shotgun aimed at the door, as she waited to see if the bear would come back. It didn’t.

In most cases, black bears are fearful of humans and they run away. They rarely attack, although there are some documented cases of this happening in other states. I did write a story a few years back about a man who was badly mangled by a bear after it got tangled up with his dog in the southern Adirondacks. The man barely escaped and came away with very serious lacerations from the animal.

Ultimately, what does all this mean? It means bears are a part of life in the Adirondacks and you need to be mindful of them whether you are a visitor, resident or camper. Be careful next time you go camping and be respectful of them. Leaving your food unsecured could ultimately get the animal killed.

The DEC has some recommendations about how to avoid this situation. Visitors to the backcountry are encouraged to:

  • Pack a minimal amount of food. Use lightweight and dehydrated foods. Plan all meals to avoid leftovers;
  • Use bear-resistant food canisters, which are required in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness of the Adirondack Park;
  • Cook and eat before dark and cook away from campsites;
  • Avoid spills and drippings while cooking and do not pour grease into fire pits; and
  • Never leave food unattended.
  • If you encounter a bear:
  • Don’t panic. Most bears are as afraid of people as people are of bears;
  • Never approach, surround, or corner a bear;
  • Back away slowly — do not run;
  • Do not throw backpacks or food at bears. If bears are rewarded with food, they will continue to seek food from people; and
  • If feeling threatened by a bear, raise your arms over your head to look bigger and yell loudly at the bear while slowly backing away.
  • For more information, visit DEC webpages on black bears and reducing bear-human conflicts.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in Mike’s weekly Backcountry Journal newsletter. Click here to subscribe.

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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 mike@adirondackexplorer.org.

27 Responses

  1. Ethan says:

    Thanks for covering this, Mike.
    The question is “How do you stop humans from feeding bears?”
    Maybe time to post signs stating recreational users will receive heavy fines for feeding bears or other wildlife. Make the fines hefty and meaningful.
    Clearly, humans are ignoring the message and bears die because of it.

  2. Boreas says:

    If we had grizzlies in the Park, people would be more careful with food and food preparation. Black bears typically don’t make a meal of their donors.

    • Steve B. says:

      We don’t know all the circumstances of the bear problem at Lake Colden. I like to think not an issue of folks actually leaving food out for bears, likely poor practice in storing food, but I also suspect that as the video was taken in daylight, the bear figured out to wander thru when many were making dinner. Not much to do to change that.

      I do think it’s sad the bears cannot be relocated somewhere in the park, like 20 miles south of Cranberry Lake or some such. A wildlife expert could school on why that’s not feasible. Unfortunate to have to euthanize the bear though.

  3. Dominic Jacangelo says:

    The human / bear issue is one that is growing around the state. We have moved into their territory and then wonder why this interaction exist. It is not just the Adirondacks but throughout a good portion of the state. I now have a young black bear visiting our development 8 miles outside Albany on a regular basis. The neighbors know to take in the bird feeders and such and to put away the garbage can. Hopefully the bear will move on after its easy meals are gone.
    No food, no bear!

    • AG says:

      Well I can’t understand why people who do choose to live near bear territory don’t use dogs for what they were bred for… In many parts of the world it is common practice. I once stayed at a cabin on private land and the owners had 2 large sheperd dogs that would survey the property at night and keep away predators – including bears. No need to kill any bears and no unpleasant interactions.

  4. Boreas says:

    Despite the language we use, the chronic problem in camping areas of the Park isn’t people intentionally feeding bears, but rather people unintentionally feeding or attracting them to campsites. Bears are like BIG raccoons – they follow their nose – and when food is at stake, are not easily deterred. And like raccoons, healthy bears are typically not dangerous – even when they are in your lean-to.

    During a normal season, healthy bears tend to avoid humans and campsites. Otherwise, we would see bands of raiding bears like we saw in the days of open dumps. But bears stressed by overcrowding, disease, bad teeth, and lack of natural food by drought, etc., are more likely to look for easier meals. Even the proper use of bear canisters does not help if you cook your meals and eat your s’mores in the campsite. Those smells linger in the campsite and on your clothes, ringing the dinner bell for any bruins in the area. What we don’t have the ability to do is deter these animals sufficiently the FIRST time they raid a camp or even come sniffing around a camp. If we had a Ranger stationed 24/7 at every campsite armed with rubber bullets and other hazing equipment, healthy bears may not become conditioned to entering campsites for food. But short of this, there doesn’t seem to be enough “punishment” the average camper can dole out to deter them. A few rocks, yelling, rattling pans, and curses isn’t going to do it if there is a strong smell of recently cooked and consumed food. Once habituated, there is no real deterrent.

    Perhaps relocating or killing habituated bears is ultimately the wrong approach. Perhaps relocating campers is a better option. Maybe a better approach is to close DEC campsites and prohibit backcountry camping when bears become an issue. Or perhaps we need an army of campsite stewards armed with deterrents for bears and the ability to enforce proper food preparation and storage.

    Ultimately, management decisions come down to managing human expectations or managing animal expectations. Is “civilizing” the human camping experience in a Wilderness area the right approach when protecting the resource and wildlife should be the guiding principle? I think we need to re-examine what we consider a Wilderness area and whether humans or wildlife are given priority. Killing “problem” bears is at best a short term solution.

  5. Peter Klein says:

    The DEC is no longer about conservation. Itis about killing.

  6. Charlie S says:

    “The bears are not the issue. We are,”

    Too often we err on both side of the fence, even when good intentions are the aim. I recall a few years ago a DEC officer shot a bear up in a tree with a tranquilizer dart in Albany County somewhere and wouldn’t you know….the bear, not long after feeling the effects of that dart, fell from its height in that tree and died. I mean what was that DEC officer thinking! There are so many sad stories where do I begin! It seems to me the brain is shrinking and so is having an effect in ways that just weren’t so in the past.

    “The bears are not the issue. We are,”
    Yes sir!!

  7. Charlie S says:

    “The DEC is no longer about conservation. It is about killing.”

    It’s cheaper, and less work, to kill the bear than it is to relocate it! That’s what we’re all about….saving time and money. Sad but so true!

    • Boreas says:


      The problem with relocation is where do you put a “problem” bear in NYS where it can’t walk within a day or two to human habitation or campgrounds? Bears are common everywhere now. Getting a bear to stay put when you place them amongst a possibly overcrowded bear population doesn’t favor the relocated bear.

      Waking up hungry in unfamiliar territory is quite stressful in itself. The bear then needs to find food and water in unfamiliar territory, so it starts searching and wandering, following its nose. Where will it end up? Relocation may give the bear a fighting chance, but it does nothing to change behavior.

      • Sula says:

        When a bear is relocated, it will just return right back to where it came from. Bears are smart! My BF, a bow hunter, was hunting deer in the Poconos (where there are a lot of bears). He was sitting up in his tree stand with his hunting companion when his fellow hunter dropped the remains of a Philly cheese steak on the ground below. A bear appeared and ate the rest of the sandwich. A week later BF was back again hunting from the same tree. Along came the bear, who gazed up at him, hoping for more food — he must have checked by that spot every day. BF found himself a different hunting spot, and a different hunting companion — one who doesn’t bring food while hunting.

    • Douglas J says:

      The problem with relocating bears is not the cost, it’s the effectiveness. Bears have been known to cover 50 or more miles to return to their home territory, and they can do it in remarkably short time. There’s also the additional issue that the bear simply becomes a “problem bear” in its new territory. It used to be common for bears in the central and southern Adirondacks to be relocated to the High Peaks wilderness areas, which now have a lot of problem bears.

  8. Charlie S says:

    I understand Boreas and so it goes back to “The bears are not the issue. We are,” which I never lose sight of!

  9. Al West says:

    As a former Park Ranger I have had more than my share of black bear encounters. I also received training as to what to expect from black bears. Bears are not the problem,people are!
    I remember when NYSDEC converted garbage disposal from cans in the campgrounds and when Saturday night entertainment was to go to the dump to watch the bears. I’ve seen where bears have broken into camps and cars.
    I run a trapline in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness area, in the heart of black bear country. I am distressed by DEC’s decision to destroy one of these wonderful animals rather than relocate them to a wilderness area like the one I mentioned.
    I know public safety must remain paramount, but more and more I am having trouble accepting DEC’s “nuisance animals” policy.
    Perhaps NYSDEC should consider black bear trapping and hunting with hounds as a better alternative policy to controlling bear populations.

  10. Ron Webber says:

    Why can’t they do what Alaska does….. drop them off deep in the woods??

    • Boreas says:


      Why can’t DEC do x, y, or z? For one thing, staffing levels are inadequate, despite what Basil Seggos says. Another thing is money. Investigating, trapping, transporting, health analysis, and eventual release ties up a team for quite a while. If they were considered endangered there may be more available funding, but for now, this practice is expensive. Perhaps with adequate staffing and funding, killing of “nuisance” bears would be less frequent.

      I believe in the past, bears were tagged and relocated, then euthanized if they continued to get into trouble. I don’t know if this is the current practice. There weren’t a lot of details in the article, but perhaps this practice is no longer feasible.

  11. Wally Elton says:

    Protecting wildlife needs to be a higher priority here. “Recommendations” should be requirements with vigorous enforcement. Are there bear boxes at DEC campgrounds and picnic areas?

  12. Homebrew says:

    It would help all parties immensely if NYS would follow the practices of the National Park System and install steel bear bins at areas such as Marcy Dam and other critical areas. These bear bins have been immensely successful in keeping Grizzlies and Black Bears out of campgrounds out west. They are easy to use, creating a win-win situation. Why is our state not doing this here, and instead blaming the campers? We pay fees at a lot of these campgrounds, and not only are there no bear bins, but the bathrooms, fire rings, and tables are abysmal. NYS, please reinvest in our campgrounds.

    • Steve B. says:

      The DEC uses bear boxes at a number of the campgrounds they operate, Forked Lake is the one I’ve used. But I could see that it’s a huge expense to install at the plethora of lean-to’s throughout the EHPW, especially as they need to either be carried in (multiple hundred pound steel box), or airlifted into place, then set onto a concrete slab. The Great Smokey National Park uses a bear proof cable system at the shelters in the AT as I’ve read, that might be a solution.

  13. terry V says:

    Not trying to be a wise ass with this question.
    Since bears have this great sense of smell, why do I never see them eating road kill.

    • Boreas says:

      If they were hungry enough, they probably would. But black bears are mostly vegetarians. Berries, nuts, and marshmallows likely pack on the pounds for winter more than a flattened skunk. Grizzlies have a better appreciation of carrion and fresh meat.

  14. Capt.Joseph Settineri says:

    Great article,very well thought out. I have all manner of four-legged carnivores roaming the property that I live on which is about 40 acres here in Westport. One of my neighbors was feeding feral cats that live in several barns on the grounds as there are two other houses besides mine, I asked them politely to stop doing that, explained why and they were happy to oblige. Where there are wild living and breeding feeding your dog or cat outside is not wise. One other thing I’d like to mention this area we have a lot of hunters that live here in town, they’ll hang dress a deer on one of their trees in their backyards and then pitched the guts Into the Woods I don’t think I have to elaborate on that story. Keep the good articles coming thank you.

  15. The best solution is to keep the people out of the forest. They have no common sense when it comes to the environment or the wildlife. Having grown up in the Adirondacks I’ve seen numerous examples of the way people from the cities act when they get out in woods. This is the bears habitat, not yours.

  16. Margaret Verdow says:

    Bears are incredibly clever and smart. I call them “equal opportunity feeders”. When they are hungry, or when food becomes available that requires little effort, they will return again and again. I remember the “dump days”, too. In Inlet, it was a nightly occurrence for the bears to visit the open dump and the vacationers visit to see the bears. Through the years, in places like Yosemite Nat. Park, {where we were forced to abandon our site and go elsewhere with our tent}, to the Smokies where we watched them check out all the cans{ buried in the ground} in an empty campground in the Fall, to our experiences in Lake Superior Provincial Park; we learned how NOT to behave. The most interesting encounter was at a place called Rabbit blanket Provincial Park Campground. There, a nuisance Black Bear would show up in the middle of the day, going from site to site, and even going up RV steps to look in the doors. The ultimate transgression was when it sauntered into the Ranger Station in the middle of the day. Soon after, a bear trap {large steal mesh cage, baited with all sorts of food} was parked next to the Ranger Station. They caught that bear and hauled it 150 miles north into the Canadian wilderness. Within a week, that same bear showed up in that same campground. Tough call as to how to deal with their persistence and human behavior. But, definitely, more education needed for those people who are unfamiliar with the bears and their behavior. With rangers so overburdened with their duties, it appears to be the only solution for now. Need to rethink the big push by our governor to encourage larger numbers of people to be hiking, camping etc. in the Adirondacks. There are consequences and one of them is the destruction of bears.