College students and biologists are tracking what makes black bears tick.
RICHMOND — Hunter David Proctor of Springwater hadn’t planned on getting a bear when he went into the woods last November on his family’s land in Richmond.
But then, there it was: A big black bear.
With just one shot of his bow, Proctor downed the animal that a butcher later estimated weighed some 250 pounds. Proctor said it was his first bear, and a bit bigger than the one his dad got on the land the previous season.
The bear yielded about 75 pounds of meat and, come summer, should be ready for mounting on his wall, Proctor said.
Black bears are thriving in New York state, particularly in certain areas that include the Finger Lakes. Proctor’s bear was the only one taken in Ontario County during the 2015 hunting season.
But the Richmond bear was one of 1,132 taken in the entire southern region of the state, breaking an all-time record. Statewide, hunters took 1,715 bears — the second-largest bear harvest on record, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
With bears feeling quite at home in the Empire State, the DEC a few years age expanded hunting opportunities at the same time scientists and researchers continue to learn more about what they are up to.
Art Kirsch, DEC senior wildlife biologist, said this year’s mild winter meant more bears roaming around than usual, which likely contributed to the large bear harvest.
“Some bears had not gone into their dens until December,” he said. With food so easy to find, some bears may have stayed outside the den for long periods, using it more as a “daybed,” he said.
Captured on camera
What bears do in winter is pretty amazing, said John Van Niel, professor of environmental conservation at Finger Lakes Community College.
And he knows, because students in his Black Bear Management class are helping to document their “secret life."
Using remote-sensing cameras at the dens of sows and their cubs, the students have discovered all kinds of behaviors. The DEC has equipped several bears in the region with radio collars so the bears can be tracked to their dens in February.
The students’ goal is to place three cameras at each den to document any activity before the bears’ final den emergence. In March, the DEC visits the dens to gather data, monitor the health of the bears and check or replace the radio collar.
Some of findings from Van Niel:
One mama bear gave birth to two cubs in a den she crafted in a thorny shrub. She spent a lot of time with her cubs in front of the cameras. It appeared that she was giving the cubs climbing lessons, in some instances.
One sequence of images shows a cub falling from a low limb and mom picks it up and places it back in the tree.
Cubs also hitched rides on mom’s back — interesting, as Van Niel said this is the first he has seen of black bears this young doing this.
Nighttime images are taken with an infrared flash so the animals are not spooked. This makes it possible to photograph black bears inside dark dens.
The students are sifting through more than 30,000 images to document and quantify activities of the sow and her cubs.
Images show cubs nursing and clamoring over their mom at all hours of the night and mom gnawing on her foot pads. One image shows a bear eating snow, using her long tongue to carefully clean her den’s “porch” of any new fallen accumulation.
Living with bears
The black bear population statewide is estimated at 7,000, with about 3,500 in the Adirondacks, 2,500 in the Catskills and 1,000 in Western New York, which includes the Finger Lakes.
No permanent populations exist north of the Thruway, Kirsch sid.
The DEC seeks to keep black bears away from populated areas, particularly the hubs of Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, and educate people about living safely with bears.
“Bears aren’t going to change,” said Kirsch.
So people have to change their behavior, he said, or the secret lives of black bears won't be so secret any more.
DEC officials urge homeowners to remove bird feeders after April 1.
Don’t leave garbage outside of houses or garages, as even the smell of dirty diapers can attract bears. Don’t place food outside to attract wildlife and don’t feed pets outside. Bears also can smell what is inside refrigerators or freezers, so those should not be operated outside or on porches.
Bears can raise havoc.
The Catskill region, which has about 2,500 bears and the state’s largest expanding population, has an average of 100 bears a year entering homes, said Kirsch. This is much less common in the Finger Lakes and surrounding areas, which has had just a few such cases over several years, he said.
The DEC tries to capture bears that cause trouble for humans or those who come too close to heavily populated areas. The goal is to move those bears to a safe environment for them and for people and track the bear to ensure it will not cause further trouble.
In 2010, a black bear that was discovered on the Rochester Institute of Technology campus was tranquilized and brought to the Finger Lakes Community College East Hill Campus in Naples. DEC staff fitted the young male bear with a radio collar before releasing it at the FLCC site, which is adjacent to the 6,100-acre High Tor State Wildlife Management area.
Killing a bear is a last resort, but it happens.
In Cortland County, the DEC this week reported the death of a bear that had been removed from a tree in a residential neighborhood in the city of Cortland.
The 200-pound adult male was previously captured in Madison and Chenango counties. After residents complained about the bear, DEC officials captured it and fitted it with a GPS collar to track its movements.
Released back into the wild on April 9, the bear had traveled some 20 miles when it was last tracked on April 19 to a spot near Lincklaen State Forest. The DEC said it “followed standard protocols for capturing bears in urban wildlife situations." An autopsy is being conducted by veterinarians at Cornell's Animal Health Diagnostic Center.
Kirsch said it can be tricky dealing with bears. He recalled moving a bear several years ago from Greece in Monroe County to Naples, about 55 miles.
“The bear was back in five days,” he said. So the bear was moved again, this time 220 miles to the Adirondacks. Good move.
“It stayed there,” Kirsch said.
New York bear harvest, by the numbers
7,000 Estimated population statewide
3,500 Adirondack region
1,000 Western New York
Source: State Department of Environmental Conservation