Black bears roaming suburban Amherst have been a hot topic for the past two weeks, with Amherst police developing new policies for handling bear sightings and state officials hosting a presentation on the topic today.
Considered -- but abandoned -- was the idea of arming town police officers with tranquilizer guns or traps to subdue wayward bears without killing them.
"That's akin to anesthesia," said Police Chief John Askey. "It's not simple for our officers to do."
Both the new policies and the public presentation follow the controversial fatal shooting of a 1 1/2 -year-old black bear in July in northern Amherst. The bear had been spotted in more rural areas of town but then moved into more densely populated areas.
Police killed the bear after it ran from a pizza shop parking lot to a gas station across the street, then later to the Jackson Square Apartments on North French Road. The decision to shoot the bear had supporters but outraged some animal lovers who had expected police to use non-lethal measures.
To better educate the public about the black bear incursions into populated areas, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Amherst Conservation Advisory Council are holding a free presentation on black bears at 7 p.m. today in Heritage Heights Elementary School, 2545 Sweet Home Road.
In a recent presentation to the Town Board, Askey said that after the bear shooting, he and other members of his command team met with a senior wildlife biologist from the DEC.
Since wildlife experts estimate that as many as a dozen black bears may be roaming around northern Erie and Niagara counties, and bear habitats are expanding around the state, Askey said he wanted his department to be ready to handle future bear sightings.
He asked about equipping town officers with tranquilizer guns or bear traps. He said private donors had offered to pay for the equipment and transportation needed to sedate or trap and relocate wayward bears.
After speaking with DEC biologist Timothy Spierto, however, Askey decided that his officers would lack the experience and skill necessary to safely implement this medical procedure.
"There are grave mortality and injury concerns for the bear," he stated in his report to the board. "There are also concerns related to agitating and drugging an otherwise appropriately behaving bear."
He acknowledged, however, that in the future, police may be more proactive in redirecting bears back into their natural habitats through the use of rubber bullets or bean bag rounds when the bears are first spotted leaving more rural locations.
Working with the DEC, the Police Department has focused heavily on training and education for officers to minimize harm to trespassing bears while also limiting the threat to public safety.
All town officers have been given a law enforcement guide for dealing with black bears. The Police Department also hosted a daylong DEC training course last month for area law enforcement on methods of responding to black bears.