Growing Pains

As their numbers multiply in some states, black bears are creating unusual problems in some unlikely places

  • Les Line
  • Oct 01, 2001

SURPRISE VISITOR: A black bear peers over the railing of a deck in Minnesota, where the species' numbers have soared in recent decades. As human development spreads deeper into ursine habitat, bears and people are increasingly coming into contact--and conflict.

PATRICK CARR, black bear project leader with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, seemed a bit frazzled. It was only mid-February and already his phone was lighting up with bear complaints, including calls from startled exurban residents who discovered that bruins had been hibernating in the crawl spaces under their homes, which, in some cases, were in areas that once provided habitat for bears. Due to heavy demand, Carr was planning an extra workshop to train local police officers in handling so-called "nuisance" bears, with an emphasis on using lethal force. "Dead bears don't breed," Carr told a writer, explaining that "an aggressive approach" is needed to protect the Garden State's sprawling human population from a booming ursine population.

Around the same time, and in sharp contrast, the Arizona Game and Fish Department was giving royal treatment to 18 black bear cubs that wandered into Phoenix last fall in a desperate search for food. One animal was rescued from the top of a palm tree with a fire truck cherry-picker. Biologist Pat O'Brien says the starving bears were fattened up at a wildlife rehabilitation center and were being moved by helicopter to mountaintop dens where they could sleep away the rest of the winter.

Photo by MICHAEL CHOW (Arizona Republic, 10/5/00, USED BY PERMISSION)

OUT OF PLACE: Wildlife workers lift a 30-pound cub onto a truck in Phoenix for transport to a rehabilitation facility. Several black bear cubs wandered into the Arizona city last fall during a severe drought that dried up natural food supplies. The animals were later moved to mountaintop denning sites far from the city where they passed the winter. 

Meanwhile, a U.S. magistrate in New Orleans was coming down hard on a hapless sportsman who shot a Louisiana black bear, a federally listed threatened subspecies. The judge yanked the man's hunting privileges for three years and ordered him to pay a $2,500 fine plus $9,000 restitution, and contribute $500 to the Black Bear Conservation Committee, a nonprofit group working to restore bear populations in the lower Mississippi River Valley through translocations and habitat improvement on both public and private lands.

And with lean black bears about to emerge from their dens, the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, was enforcing an ordinance that mandates bear-proof garbage containers for homes and restaurants along the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The rule had been debated since 1997 when the acorn crop crashed, driving scores of bears into town, but it wasn't adopted until a bear killed a woman hiker on a park trail in May 2000.

Too many bears. Bears in the wrong places. Not enough bears. The first-ever fatal attack by a black bear in a national park in the United States. What in the world is going on with Ursus americanus, the all-American bear?

What's going on is an increase in black bear numbers in many areas of the lower 48 states over the past 30-odd years. In Minnesota, for example, the bear population has soared from 6,000 to 30,000. That's generally not a big problem until bears and people compete for the same sylvan territory, such as in New Jersey, the most densely populated state. As a result, a new term has worked its way into the bear manager's glossary: cultural carrying capacity, meaning the number of burly omnivores that society will tolerate.

Usually, when conflicts occur, bears are just being bears--big critters with big appetites that will eat anything handy, especially in spring when natural foods are scarce. They may knock down bird feeders, swipe burgers off the barbecue grill and slurp up rotting leftovers in the compost bin. Last fall, a female and two cubs broke into a kitchen near Boulder, Colorado, and dined on dog food, brownies and honey. People are rarely hurt in such incidents. But a state wildlife official warned that if home construction near mountainous areas continues at a feverish pace, and the bears continue to lose habitat, more dangerous confrontations are inevitable.

As for bears showing up in unlikely places, such as Boston's near-suburbs or the 350-pound male killed by a pickup truck on the busy Baltimore-Washington Parkway, blame nature. "Young male bears are kicked out of their homes when they reach a certain age and look for new and interesting places to live," says Maryland Department of Natural Resources spokesman John Surrick. The cubs that padded into Phoenix may have been abandoned by their mothers during a severe drought. "There was nothing for them to eat, no acorns or berries in the mountains and no prickly pears in the desert," Arizona Game's Pat O'Brien says. "One of the cubs weighed only 20 pounds. It should have been a 50-pound bear."

In Louisiana and adjacent states, however, the issue is too few breeding bears or, in the swamps of east Texas, none at all. In the 1800s, fur traders shipped thousands of bearskins from New Orleans to Europe. (Elite regiments of the British army have worn towering bearskin hats since the Napoleonic Wars.) But what ultimately turned the region's once abundant and genetically unique bear into a virtual black ghost was the conversion of bottomland forests to farmland in the last century.

According to Mike Vaughn at the Virginia Cooperative Fish and Wildife Research Unit, there are close to a million black bears in North America, with Alaska and Canada accounting for half the continental population. However, there are only 500 Louisiana black bears in the Pelican State, Mississippi and southern Arkansas combined.

Some states, on the other hand, are barren of bears. Black bears need wild forests with mast-producing trees like oaks and hickories, along with a tangled understory of raspberries, blueberries and other fruit-heavy shrubs. So there's a big hole in the coast-to-coast distribution map for Ursus americanus through the prairie states: the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Illinois and Indiana. There are no breeding black bears in Rhode Island or Delaware. Residents of Connecticut hadn't seen a bear in their state in more than a century until the 1970s, when some bruins moved into the state's hilly northwest corner from Massachusetts. And formerly bearless Ohio is seeing a minor ursine invasion from neighboring Pennsylvania.

Counting bears, it must be emphasized, is an inexact science at best, especially in states with huge numbers like the 23,000 in Maine. The Pine Tree State's bear maven, Craig McLaughlin of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, uses radio telemetry to estimate population densities in three large study areas, then projects those values over 26,215 square miles of bear range, which takes in 86 percent of Maine's land area. "That's the weakest point in our bear management system," says McLaughlin, adding that he plans to adopt a relatively new tool--tetracycline marking--that was first tried in Minnesota ten years ago.


BIG APPETITES: Black bears, such as this animal raiding a backyard bird feeder in southern Vermont, almost always avoid people unless they are lured into an area by food. In the past 100 years, the creatures have caused only 44 known human deaths. 

That pioneering study involved hanging bags of bacon in smooth-barked trees spaced about three miles apart throughout Minnesota bear country. Each of the 3,000 bacon bags contained nine capsules of tetracycline, an antibiotic used to treat both people and livestock, and the sites were checked for claw marks that would tell biologists whether a bear, fisher or other bacon-lover scavenged the bait.

Karen Noyce, research specialist with the Minnesota Division of Fish and Wildlife, explains that tetracycline is incorporated into any newly formed tooth or bone material after being ingested by an animal. "It shows up as a fluorescent mark when teeth collected from successful bear hunters are examined under ultraviolet light." Scientists are able to project the statewide population based on the number of baits eaten by bears and the percentage of trophy bears showing traces of tetracycline.

But what led to a black bear population boom in Minnesota and some other states? Status as a game animal (bears were considered vermin in the Gopher State until 1971), conservative hunting regulations and, in the Northeast, more habitat as old farmlands returned to forest.

The essentials of good bear country include limited human access, thick cover and plenty of denning sites. In a study in Virginia's Allegheny Mountains, 72 percent of the radio-collared bears denned in hollow trees or snags, usually red or chestnut oaks. "I'm talking about awfully big oaks with a 30-inch DBH [diameter at breast height] or greater," says Mike Vaughan. "The cavity entrance might be 50 feet from the ground with a drop of 30 feet inside the tree." His graduate students cut windows in the tree trunks after darting the dens' occupants, removed the sleeping animals to collect data, stuffed them back in the cavity, then nailed and caulked the cutout back in place.

Food, of course, is a bear's first concern, and severe shortages like an acorn crop failure will affect birth rates and cub survival. One dramatic example: Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, most of which is protected as a national wildlife refuge, is a stronghold of the Florida black bear, another subspecies and former candidate for the federal endangered list. In the fall of 1995, a shortage of black gum and saw palmetto fruit--favorite foods of the swamp's bears--led to a nearly 100 percent failure in cub production the following spring. Moreover, the population took a second hit when hunters killed almost twice the normal number of bears because the bruins were foraging for acorns on privately owned uplands beyond the refuge. The effects of the black gum crop failure on Okefenokee bear population dynamics were still evident four years later, University of Tennessee researcher Dave Brandenburg reported.

Like other black bear students before him, Brandenburg often handled squealing cubs in the presence of their mothers and was never attacked. Adult females, says Lynn Rogers, director of the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota, "may bluff-charge if they don't flee, but attacking humans to defend cubs is a grizzly bear trait." In fact, wild black bears have caused only 44 deaths in the past 100 years. In almost every case, including the fatal attack in the Great Smokies last year, the bear treated the victim as prey, according to Stephen Herrero, an environmental scientist at the University of Calgary and author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.

Injuries from black bears aren't common, either, and they often result from human misbehavior: people feeding, photographing, crowding or teasing park bears. "They react to people as they do to other bears with bad manners, by nipping or cuffing with little warning," says Rogers. He noted that only two injuries (from the same animal) occurred during a 19-year study of bear-camper encounters in northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. Basically, black bears tend to be wimps around people despite their size--300 pounds for an average adult male, 150 pounds for a female. (The heaviest black bear on record weighed 880 pounds.)

Why, then, are New Jersey cops taking the offensive against Ursus americanus? In Massachusetts, the third most densely populated state, bear numbers have grown from about 400 in the early 1980s to at least 1,800 today. But according to Bay State wildlife biologist Jim Cardoza, "Environmental officers kill bears only in extraordinary circumstances. They've shot two in the past three or four years."

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has extended its bear season in response to an increase in nuisance complaints. (Smashed bird feeders are the number one problem.) But Cardoza says sportsmen can't possibly harvest enough animals to stabilize the population.

New Jersey game officials thought otherwise and last year they proposed the state's first bear hunt since 1970. The goal: to reduce the state's total number of bears from around 1,000 to as few as 250 over a three-year period.

"Some people fear for their children's safety," says John Bradway, chairman of the state's Fish and Game Council. But former Governor Christie Todd Whitman, faced with a fury of opposition from animal rights activists, persuaded the council to cancel the bear season six days before it was scheduled to begin. Whitman, who now heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, offered a counterproposal to use local police for bear control.

Black bears are found mainly in the northern part of New Jersey, which biologist Patrick Carr called "bear heaven" because it lies in a transition zone between northern and southern forest types. "There's a tremendous diversity of natural foods--acorns, beech and hickory nuts, cherries, black gum, raspberries and huckleberries. We have a lot of white-tailed deer and people see bears killing and eating fawns in their front yards. Plus, they supplement their diet by raiding corn fields and eating bird seed and human food. Some people are even feeding them."


FAMILY TIES: Black bear cubs stay with their mother for about a year and half, until she forces them away. While female offspring often continue to live in parts of their mother's feeding range until they reach adulthood, young males may travel great distances before establishing their own territories.

Carr says New Jersey bears are breeding at a remarkably early age, with two-year-old females raising cubs in some instances. "Usually they have their first cubs at six." An average litter size of three and a 70 percent cub survival rate are also high, he noted, adding that mothers with as many as six cubs have been spotted. "We probably had 350 cubs born in January," he adds.

In 1999, the Division of Fish and Wildlife fielded 1,659 bear damage complaints, a significant increase from 667 the previous year. "Our telemetry studies show there's no such thing as a deep-woods bear," Carr says. "They'll be at a school dumpster in the morning and a wildlife management area in the afternoon."

A hunting season, Carr argues, "would have been a safe, responsible way to control the bear population in this state. Now it's up to the local police to deal with problem bears: They have to either kill them or use rubber buckshot and pyrotechnics for adversity conditioning if they are not a threat to human life and property."

But that doesn't sit well with New Jersey resident Lynda Smith, the director of the Bear Education and Resource Group (BEAR) who led the charge against a hunting season. "There's way too much emphasis on killing bears that could be rehabilitated," she maintains. "Most bear complaints are minor. People are moving here from the city and they're not used to seeing wildlife in any form, let alone bears. We can educate them to be more tolerant."

It's anyone's guess how the situation will play out in the short, let alone long term. But as Craig McLaughlin told a Maine reporter writing about close encounters of the ursine kind, "Yes, black bears are big and powerful animals. But we can live with them. We do."

New York-based Field Editor Les Line wrote about indigo buntings in the February/March issue.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates