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How to coexist with nature, when bears and coyotes move to the suburbs

You don't need to visit a wildlife refuge to get a look at black bears, coyotes and deer.

These days, Erie County's suburbs are where the wild things are.

Early summer's Great Black Bear Hunt highlighted just how much nature and civilization overlap. And the decision by Amherst police to shoot an injured bear stirred up strong emotions.

It's part of the larger conversation over how the public can coexist with wildlife, especially in suburban neighborhoods where development pushes into animal habitats.

"More and more, we're seeing these conflicts arising," said Barb Haney, director of wildlife for the SPCA Serving Erie County.

Animal advocates say they've seen an accepting attitude toward animals in recent years. More residents and governments want to let wildlife go about their way, they said, in place of defaulting to lethal responses after an up-close encounter.

That means using dogs to scare off geese, or loud noises to drive off coyotes, instead of shooting them. But towns and villages still do kill hundreds of animals when they believe it's in the public's best interest, such as to prevent deer-vehicle crashes.

What's the proper balance?

Forest Lawn, SPCA to find non-lethal way to deal with deer-killing coyote

"Wildlife gotta go somewhere, right?" said John J. Jaroszewski Jr., an avid hunter and the general crew chief for Cheektowaga's Facilities, Parks, Building and Grounds Department.

It's common for bears to wander far afield looking for new territory, but a mass of black bear sightings this spring and summer captivated the region for weeks.

One bear, or more, was spotted meandering through Amherst, Clarence and North Tonawanda in June and July. Agencies for the most part gave the bear a wide berth, hoping it would move to more open spaces, and advised the public on how to avoid a dangerous encounter.

That worked, until a driver on the Lockport Expressway struck the bear, injuring one of its legs.

By July 9, the bear had made its way into crowded subdivisions in East Amherst. That night, officers made the decision to shoot the bear with a patrol rifle.

Some town residents and animal rights supporters decried the shooting, stirring up a fierce debate online and in letters to the editor. Many wondered why police did not consult with the state Department of Environmental Conservation before taking the fatal shot and said the authorities should have tried to tranquilize, trap and remove the bear.

"This was a very unfortunate incident. They should have relocated the animal," said Jennifer Radecki, an Amherst resident and treasurer with Animal Advocates of Western New York, a nonprofit group that has helped ease conflicts with wildlife including convincing the Williamsville Cemetery to cap fence spikes that had impaled deer.

Police shoot to death bear that wandered through Amherst

Police brass said the decision was reasonable, citing the difficulty police would have in capturing the bear. It came nine years after police sparked a similar backlash after shooting another bear in the town.

"They have a huge range, and if they're healthy they have the ability to move through," said Amherst Police Chief John Askey. Police were in "observation mode, only," until it became clear the bear was struggling, he said.

Askey said his department was in regular contact with the DEC during this period, but the agency doesn't automatically send out teams to tranquilize and cage wandering bears. He said darting a bear is difficult and it can alter the bear's behavior until the narcotic takes effect.

When wildlife move into urban or suburban areas, the close quarters present a new set of issues for the agency, the municipalities and the public at large.

The authorities have to determine whether the bear can make its way out on its own, or with some encouragement, or whether it can safely be trapped and removed. "We have to treat each one of these situations somewhat differently," said Jim Farquhar, chief of the DEC's wildlife bureau.

Bears aren't the only animals challenging how people here cope with wildlife.

Deer, coyotes, geese, turkeys and other creatures for years have wandered onto golf courses, stolen snacks out of backyard gardens and dashed across roadways.

Some remedies have been fatal.

For example, Cheektowaga in 2005 rounded up and killed 106 geese that had made their home in Stiglmeier Park, outraging the public. Jaroszewski, the general crew chief, said the town worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a program to oil the eggs.

"It keeps the population down," said Jaroszewski, who said the park once had close to 100 geese nesting areas, and now has about 20 or 30. The town also fired off pyrotechnics, and scared off the geese with dogs, including Jaroszewski's Labrador, Kodiak, who died of cancer two months ago.

The Town of Tonawanda turned to border collies to keep geese off its Brighton and Sheridan Park golf courses. The geese are drawn to freshly mowed grass and are an annoyance because their waste sticks to shoes and golf cart wheels, said Mark Campanella, superintendent of Youth, Parks and Recreation, but the remaining collie, Thunder, has properly intimidated the geese.

Visitors to Forest Lawn late last year ran into a coyote that had devoured a litter of fawns. The DEC initially gave the cemetery permission to trap, and kill, the coyote. But the SPCA intervened.

A mature white tail deer is spotted in Forest Lawn. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo )

Instead, the SPCA's Haney said, the cemetery agreed to turn on its chapel music during the day, and to provide workers on maintenance trucks with air horns to blast when a coyote is spotted.

"Coyotes are very easily hazed," Haney said.

There's a tension at the heart of this question, experts say.

People appreciate wildlife, and federal laws such as those that banned DDT and other chemical compounds have made more animals safer. But people sometimes prefer wildlife from a distance, and they can let irrational fear color their views of various animals.

Most wildlife – even bears and coyotes – have more to fear from humans than humans have to fear from the animals. People have their own responsibility, experts said, such as by not leaving out sources of food for animals.

At the SPCA's wildlife rehabilitation facility in West Seneca, staffers receive 8,000 calls per year and are on track to take in about 3,500 sick, injured or orphaned wild animals in need of care this year. Most were hurt because they consumed a pesticide, flew into a building, hit a car or otherwise met humankind.

"Listen, wildlife is perfect. Nature is perfect," Haney said. "We sort of mess with it a little bit."

There are times when concerns for people, and for the animals, prompt officials to kill. Amherst, Cheektowaga and other municipalities cull deer to try to limit crashes with vehicles on their roads. Amherst, for example, shot and killed 176 deer in 2015, 180 deer in 2016 and 215 deer last year, according to police.

Over the same time, the town reported 390 deer-vehicle accidents in 2015, 421 such accidents in 2016 and 264 such accidents last year. "They're dying a terrible death," said Askey, the police chief.

However, Animal Advocates' Radecki said most deer-vehicle accidents take place at intersections, or at high speeds, indicating that better driver awareness would help. She also said when deer are culled by police, the remaining does have more fawns.

"I would say that is not an effective program," Radecki said.

There are best practices, said County Legislator Edward Rath III, who lives in the East Amherst neighborhood where the black bear met its end. That also was home to Tom the Turkey, which regularly stopped traffic on Amherst streets before animal control officers corralled the bird and escorted it to a wildlife rehab center in East Concord.

"He was probably a cult hero," Rath said.

Two days after the bear shooting, Rath was working in his front yard when a couple of neighbors wandered over to talk about the bear. Soon, about a dozen people had gathered for a impromptu discussion.

Rath wanted to have a larger forum, with the DEC, the SPCA, the Seneca Nation of Indians and other experts on nature and civilization coexisting. He's hosting it from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at American Legion Post No. 838, 5850 Goodrich Road, Clarence.

"Let's figure out how we can live together and be smart about it," Rath said.

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