Beware of the bear.
It’s an unusual message to give residents of Western New York but one that bears repeating, local public safety officials say, especially after four separate black bear sightings in Erie County this week that included a bear-vehicle collision Tuesday in Springville.
“There are more encounters with bears today than ever before,” said Erie County Sheriff’s Sgt. Daniel Dytchkowskyj in a news conference Friday. “Now that the bear population has grown they’ve migrated up into rural farm communities, into suburban areas and even into cities from time to time.”
Matthew Wargin can attest to that firsthand.
A black bear lumbered within just a few feet of the Williamsville resident, who was turkey hunting last Saturday in Alden. The astute 12-year veteran hunter kept still – shotgun in his lap and smartphone in his hand – as the bear approached him, caught his scent and quickly ran off.
“It was probably one of the most crazy experiences of my life,” Wargin told The Buffalo News on Friday.
He couldn’t legally shoot the animal with his weapon, but Wargin did get video shots on his phone of his close encounter. Already shared hundreds of times on social media, the two-minute video shows the large bear approaching Wargin from maybe 30 yards away to within just feet of him before quickly darting away.
“I knew once it actually came up and caught my scent, it was going to be gone,” said Wargin. But he admitted there were some nervous moments. “I guess anybody would be a little shaken.”
Wargin’s encounter was one of two bear spottings in central Erie County last Saturday. Another bear roaming through a residential neighborhood in West Seneca off Clinton Street and Union Road was shooed toward Buffalo Creek by police and members of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Monday evening, Lancaster police fielded numerous calls from residents about a bear searching for food through back yards on Genesee Street. Police put out alerts urging residents in the area to keep children and pets inside after a black bear was seen poaching food from a bird feeder near the Fox Valley Country Club.
Then, at about 9:45 a.m. Tuesday, a black bear was killed on Cascade Drive in Springville after it ran out in front of a sport utility vehicle near the Springville Country Club golf course and was struck, Dytchkowskyj said. The driver of the SUV was uninjured, police said.
The incident prompted sheriff’s officials to issue a “motorist advisory” Friday about the presence of bears on area roads.
Sheriff’s Traffic Bureau deputies urged motorists to be mindful of several simple guidelines if they hit a bear:
• Check themselves and their passengers for any injuries.
• Call 911.
• Remain inside the vehicle unless there is a fire.
• Avoid approaching the animal for any reason.
• Wait for law enforcement to arrive to check the bear’s condition.
“I want our motoring public to follow these simple guidelines when involved in a vehicle accident with our wildlife and to remember that these are wild animals that are not accustomed to human contact or proximity,” added Sheriff Timothy B. Howard. “Its first reaction is to defend itself, especially when injured.”
Only about 10 to 15 percent of the up to 8,000 estimated black bears that populate the state live in Central and Western New York, according to the DEC. Nearly all of them are found in the Southern Tier region.
Although bear and human encounters are still relatively rare occurrences, this week’s events aren’t entirely out of the ordinary this time of year when many mother bears are believed to be chasing young offspring out of their dens and into the wild to live on their own.
For instance, many still recall the bear that was struck by a vehicle and killed on the southbound Niagara Thruway in Buffalo in 2009.
That year, black bears were also found in several unusual places around the metro area, including North French Road and Millersport Highway in Amherst, along with the Aurora Expressway and other locations during the months of May, June and July.