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Keeping bears at bay: 'It's all about the food'

There's a bear out there!

Home and cabin dwellers have uttered this shocking pronouncement more often in recent years at sites in Western New York where once-open farmlands have become reforested.

Black bears survive and thrive in wooded areas, but "It's all about the food," said Anne Terninko, environmental professor at Finger Lakes Community College.

Terninko gave a presentation at Braddock Bay Park in Greece on Tuesday evening, stressing the realities of living with bears that forage for food in back yards and open areas near homes and campsites.

"The reality of the black bear's existence lies somewhere between warm-and-fuzzy Disney portrayals and the bear-hunt portrayals of vicious, bloody killers," she said, noting that these creatures rank second as the largest mammal and first as the largest carnivore in New York State.

Settlers in Western and Central New York began reducing bear habitat as early as the 1820s, harvesting bears for their meat, hides, and other body parts. The first regulations to limit harvests and set seasons did not appear until 1923.

With controls on harvesting bears and increased woodland growth during the second half of the 20th century, "the formula is simple," she said, "more forests mean more bears."

Problems arise when these bears approach residential areas in search of food. While laws prohibit feeding bears in New York State, people frequently leave food to attract bears for viewing and photo opportunities. Ultimately, bears that get used to human-provided food sources become a nuisance and a possible threat.

"A fed bear is a dead bear," she noted, pointing out that these man-bear encounters often result in conflicts that could harm humans and more often end the bear's life.

Terninko works closely with Department of Environmental Conservation bear biologists in Region 8 and Albany. Region 8 bear biologist James A. Fodge writes that the DEC rarely traps and transfers these "nuisance" bears because bears can easily return great distances to a site from which they have been removed.

"They have been known to return distances as far as 300 miles," Terninko said, and even if the bear can be successfully removed, another bear will take its place unless the lure of food is removed.

"Considering the size of New York's bear population, the manpower and expense of moving bears would be prohibitive," Fodge wrote.

Hunting remains a key element in controlling bear populations. Last season, hunting areas were expanded in the Allegany Region along the Southern Tier. Bears have steadily repopulated wooded areas north of this area.

Terninko showed the results of a GPS tracking study of a female bear born in 1999. This first-time-ever GPS plotting began with a transmitting collar affixed in 2003 and 2004 on a sow that ranged areas east and southeast of Honeoye Lake.

Her breeding cycles occurred in 2002 and 2004, which accounts for more movement activity in 2003 than in 2004. The 40-square-mile forage area looked impressive on the map, but females often traverse areas of 50 miles and more during the course of an active year. Polygamous males will range upwards of 100 square miles in search of food and mating sources.

With all this activity and state populations increased to as many as 8,000 bears, encounters with humans steadily increase.

Humans must learn to modify their own conduct when living where these carnivores cavort and not try to change bear behaviors. "Stop filling bird feeders sometime in April as soon as snow melts," Terninko suggested to landowners.

Use bear-proof canisters outside and keep tempting food items inside whenever possible to minimize smells. Bears have keen senses and can detect food odors a mile away.

Bear threats can be more disconcerting than the reality of their presence. Only two known instances of bears killing humans have been reported in New York State during the last 100 years. In that time, 60 dog bites and 180 bee stings have resulted in fatalities.

For more specific details on bear studies at Finger Lakes Community College, e-mail Terninko at: terninab@flcc.edu. For information about black bears in New York State, go to the DEC Web site: www.dec.state.-ny.us. and click on "Bears" in the Subject Index.

e-mail: wille@pce.net

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