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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Bears — Don’t Make Them Dangerous

Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, June 13, 2009.)

Papa Bear doesn’t care
if Baby Bear gets any porridge at all.
It’s summertime… and the livin’ is easy for black bears. They’re showing up in residential areas, on campgrounds, at restaurant dumpsters, and lots of other places that aren’t their natural habitat.

Bears are ruled by their stomachs. They’re a slave to an easy meal, more so if that meal is the high carbohydrate fare they find wherever man has left his leftovers. What you throw away will attract black bears like a sumo wrestler to a smorgasbord.

We who live near black bear habitat need to understand a few things. First, bears can be dangerous. That should go without saying, but it never hurts to start with the obvious.

Second, when you see bears in residential areas, they are there for a reason. They show up where the food is. They pack on the pounds all summer so that they can survive in hibernation during the winter.

Third, out in the woods, Mama Bear and her little ones must compete with Papa Bear for food. And Papa bear isn’t the doting Papa of Goldilocks fame. He doesn’t care if Baby Bear gets any porridge at all.

So, it’s no wonder Mama thinks residential areas make good digs for her and the little ones. While you might see a male bear pass through town from time to time, you’ll see young bears and sows with cubs more often because they tend to go where Papa Bear won’t threaten them.

Getting close to people is bad for bears. Why? Because the most dangerous bears are bears that are habituated to people. It’s not natural for them to be familiar with us.

It’s not natural because bears are best served when they’re not being served by man. They’re best served when they get no encouragement to hang around people. They don’t need your help and in fact, your “help” will harm them. It’s a prescription for disaster.

The lives of wild animals change constantly – especially their diets. Squirrels stockpile food against scarcity in the cold months, deer transition to eating sticks, and bears go into hibernation – all because nature provides slim pickings in the winter.

On the other hand, people don’t hibernate. Our diets change little through the seasons. We generally don’t use our outdoor grills in winter and we don’t eat marshmallow peeps in July. (Unless you’re like me and toast leftovers over a campfire!)

I’ve had one encounter with a dangerous bear. A couple of years ago I was hunting deer in New York’s Allegany State Park. A big bear, probably accustomed to campground feeding, approached me to within seven feet. He was totally unafraid. I got lots of photos.

After I went home I reviewed a book by Stephen Herrero, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. He said that black bears seldom show aggression when attacking. They display no warning. They approach slowly, during the day. They partly circle a victim, and then rush in, “trying to knock the intended prey down and inflicting injuries with jaws or paws and claws.”

If that bear had aggressive intention, he hid it. He displayed no warning. He approached slowly, during the day. He partly circled me. Fortunately he didn’t rush me.

Knowing what I now know, I have to wonder, “Was that bear sizing me up?” I can’t be sure, but I know for sure I was at risk. Why? Because bears that are accustomed to people are dangerous bears. Yes, I had a gun, a muzzleloader, but it was leaning against a tree four feet away. He had me if he decided to take me.

Here’s the truth: bears that have repeated encounters with people are being made into dangerous bears. They’re the bears that are not afraid of us. They’re the bears that expect something from us. When it’s a mother with cubs, she might expect trouble. If she does, she will defend them to the death.

So when you feed bears, you’re making them dangerous. They may have to be trapped and moved (almost impossible with a mother and cubs). They may get hit by cars. Or, the behavior they’re learning may ultimately get them euthanized. You may be signing their death warrant. That’s why people say, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

Bears aren’t supposed to be friendly to you, and you aren’t supposed to be friendly to them. Don’t feed them birdseed, or hotdogs, or even your marshmallow peeps. They might like you for it, but it’s bad for bears to like you.


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