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Staff employ tagging, trash control to keep bears at bay

Smokey the Bear's friendly likeness still graces signs around Allegany State Park.

However, his less-civilized cousins -- Eastern black bears -- now live in the park and have been known to cause trouble for visitors, park staff and themselves.

"We have a healthy bear population and we're trying to keep tabs on it," park manager Brad Whitcomb told members of the Cattaraugus County Planning Board last week.

Whitcomb and forester Darrin Bierfeldt have refined a 4-year-old program that has eliminated trailside dumpsters and cut down on the bears' nuisance visits during campers' dinner hour.

The program not only involves monitoring, trapping and tagging the bears and then tracking their movements; it also aims to teach park visitors that feeding bears is a bad idea.

The female Eastern black bear can weigh an average of 150 pounds, while males average 250 pounds.

This year alone, Whitcomb and Bierfeldt, aided by state Department of Environmental Conservation workers and other park personnel, have trapped and tagged 13 adult male bears and have dealt with 30 different bears, including cubs, in a variety of circumstances. But interaction with humans so far has been minimal despite the concentration of bears in the relatively small park. Only two cabin entries and two vehicle entries have been reported this summer.

Whitcomb said Allegany State Park is a "safe haven" due to hunting restrictions and the nearby border with Allegheny National Forest. He warned campers against leaving cabin doors open when nobody is around and warns that the bears can recognize coolers at campsites.

Literature in cabins and signs at the park entrance instruct visitors on wildlife concerns. Visitors are encouraged to notify park police about nuisance bears.

Police ticket people for not taking care of their garbage because failure to do so amounts to feeding the bears. The fines can run as high as $250 and careless campers who leave garbage at a campsite also can be billed for the cleanup.

Whitcomb recalled the old days when park visitors would bring garbage to trailside dumpsters and then wait in their cars at dusk for the bears to come out and forage for snacks. Now, recycling center compounds are protected by strong, electrified stockade fences and are open for campers' use during the day.

Bierfeldt and Whitcomb often work late at night monitoring bear activity and hope to see the animals continue to thrive in the park without unpleasant encounters with humans. For campers who burn garbage or are careless when interacting with wildlife, Whitcomb pointed out, "Bears are wild animals . . . [and] sometimes show their temper when surprised."

Neither man could say how many bears live in the park versus how many move in and out of its borders on a regular basis. Most trapped and tagged bears immediately return to the park if they are removed, so that procedure has ended.

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