Black Bears in the Town of Danby
Written by Renee Owens
Conservation Advisory Council
Welcome to the new monthly column highlighting a different wild neighbor. We decided to start with bears since our local celebrity, Rupert, has been making the news lately; glimpsed on trail and porch cameras as he and his cohorts forage in their territory now inundated with our homes and roads. No matter where you live the most common reaction to seeing a black bear is excitement. I clearly recall the first time I ever saw a wild bear; we werecamping in the Adirondacks back when “bear smart” garbage containment had not yet caught on. It was dusk when a mother with two cubs shuffled by our campsite, to my delight I learned the bears could be counted on to wander down the campground roads, foraging from one garbage can to the next. At 6 years old I was an instant Adirondacks addict, the love of Nature the area engendered as a child propelled me into exploring remote habitatsand studying wildlife worldwide as an adult.
Black bears are a relatively recent (re)occurrence for Tompkins County. Due to hunting and massive deforestation, bears were considered virtually extirpated statewide by the 1930s. Throughout the U.S. their original population range has been reduced by 40% and no wonder; 90% of adult black bear deaths are due to gunshots, trapping, and vehicle collisions. A wild bear’s natural life span is between 20 and 33 years, though most hunted bears are killed at 2-5 years, despite it taking 2-9 years for females to reach sexual maturity, males 3-4 years. However, thanks to reintroduction efforts and renewed stewardship of our forests, black bears are again an exciting part of upstate New York’s wildlife viewing opportunities.
Culturally our bruin legacy never left; bears have forever been respected icons in most Native American tribes. Tribes of the Algonquin and Seneca (where “nyagwai” means bear) have bear Clans specializing in healing, strength, and maternal wisdom. Various northwestern tribes consider eating bear taboo, and a vision of a bear is considered a powerful good omen.
We’ve learned a lot about black bears since the days of Teddy Roosevelt (for whom our stuffed toy bears are ironically named, considering he killed hundreds for trophies in his lifetime). Current researchers consider black bears intellectual equals with apes and dolphins, noting they are much more social than once believed; displaying complex relationships between unrelated bears within territories governed by matriarchal females. Black bears are considered the least aggressive of all the world’s bear species, exemplified by how many millions of times they have crossed our paths with no injury or personal mishap.
A diet of 85% vegetative matter means black bears spend much of their lives ranging far and wide to satisfy a broad palate that includes seeds, roots, leaves, flowers, stems, berries, grasses, mushrooms, and insects. Fear of black bears comes with many myths, including the idea that black bear mothers defend their cubs from humans (they don’t), or that they cannot change their habits once they learn to raid garbage cans or birdfeeders (they can change behavior with persistence from us). Your chances of a black bear encounter resulting in bodily harm is less likely than being struck by lightning. Still, to be good stewards of our hungry neighbors we must be diligent in our path to coexistence. For instance, studies show that hunting can increase bear-human conflicts by opening up territories for less experienced juveniles to explore. What does reliably reduce unwanted interactionsis persistence in minimizing access to attractants and providing chunks of unfragmented habitat with wildlife road crossings.
The study of bear behavior inevitably intersects with human behavior: we consistently see our nature reflected back to us in their fates. We have the bigger brains, but will our response to their proximity be enlightened, or intolerant? As Gandhi famously said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. So far I am grateful I live where my neighbors have expressed appreciation and tolerance for Rupert and his relatives. For some great tips on safety and reducing attractants, see this helpful bear smart flyer.