• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

There's Bears In Them Woods

Air Date: Week of

New England's settlers and farmers exterminated black bears from all but the most remote northern woods areas long ago. But after a century, New England's bears are coming back; and that means more encounters between people and one of the most feared animals on the continent. In this report, Living on Earth contributor Sy Montgomery headed into the northern woods to get to know her elusive neighbors a little better and was surprised by the timid animals she found.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Many folks think New England settlers and farmers exterminated black bears from all but the most remote regions long ago, and they're right. By the mid-1800s, bounty hunters and clear-cutting for farms had pretty much wiped bears out. But after a century, New England's bears are coming back, and that means more encounters between people and one of the most feared animals on the continent. Living on Earth contributor Sy Montgomery headed into the northern woods to get to know her elusive neighbors a little better, and here's what she found.

(Barking dogs. A gate creaks.)

WOMAN: Hi, come on in. Hi.

MONTGOMERY: Donny McDonald raises bulldogs and retrievers. Chasing a lost dog, she encountered her first wild bear in the woods near her home in southern New Hampshire.

McDONALD: My first reaction was that I didn't want my dog to get hurt, so I started chasing after the dog, who was also chasing the bear.

And I was blowing these very loud whistles, as loud as I could, to get the dog to turn around, and the bear was totally -- just took off at 100 miles an hour. The thing was so scared, and I'm sure it must have been in the next county in 5 minutes. (Laughs) And by the way, I might add this was a huge bear. It must have been a big male. Because it was huge.

MONTGOMERY: The story's almost always the same: a huge black beast looms menacingly out of the forest, and then turns tail and runs away. Encounters like these reflect one of the most dramatic wildlife recovery stories in the country. Massachusetts' bear population has tripled in the past 10 years to over 1,000. Vermont and New Hampshire each have more than 2,500.

ORF: As far as bear going to New Hampshire, these are the best of times. We now have more bear over a wider range in New Hampshire than we had in 200 years.

MONTGOMERY: Eric Orf, looking much like a big bear himself at 6 foot 2, 280 pounds, is the bear biologist for New Hampshire Fish and Game. On this snowy February day we head into woods not far from Dotty's house, looking for signs of this mysterious black beast who lives among us.

(Vehicle engine, followed by footfalls)

MONTGOMERY: As we snowshoe down this tree-lined path, it's hard to believe this was once the town's main thoroughfare. But like many thousands of acres across New England, what's now forest was once sheep pasture and farm land.

ORF: By the 1840s, 1850s, in this part of the country, the bears were essentially gone. Of course soon the soldiers went off to the Civil War and what did they discover? There's good soil, there's farm land, and Emil's farmers returned to gather families and head off and abandoned this land over the last 100 years and 130 years. And now we see the result of that abandonment is the habitat's back and so aren't the bears.

MONTGOMERY: We're heading up a rocky knoll toward a stand of beech. In the fall these trees provide one of the bears' favorite foods: beech nuts, whose rich nut meats help the bear put on the 5 inches of fat it needs to survive the winter. In a fall feeding frenzy, some bears consume 20,000 calories in a single day.

ORF: You can see on the side of the tree where the bear had to dig in with its claws to pull itself up.

MONTGOMERY: The trunk is about 2 feet in diameter with smooth, silvery-gray bark.

ORF: See that big branch up there, looks like some of it's been broken off. They'll sit in a crotch and they pull the branches in and eat the nuts off the branches, just like you or I would pick blueberries or blackberries.

MONTGOMERY: I love how you can see the 5-pointed claws in exactly the shape of a bear paw right on that tree, one after the other, and you could almost see the bear going up that -- that -- beech tree.

ORF: Absolutely; you can see exactly where it climbed up that tree. Sure. It started down here. And they take the tree on the outside like that and just go right up it. Unlike a human, their big toes are on the outside edge so that they can better grasp that tree.

MONTGOMERY: It's like their feet are on backwards, almost.

ORF: Well, ours are on backwards. (Montgomery laughs)

MONTGOMERY: Last fall's harvest was generous. But 2 years ago the nut crop failed and some folks who set out seeds for birds attracted larger quarry than they bargained for. In Massachusetts one hungry bear stole a pie off a back porch, and another bear opened a back door and took some Milky Way bars off a kitchen counter. New Hampshire Fish and Game got more than 400 complaints that year, mostly from people terrified just to see a bear.

ORF: Most people think that a bear is vicious, is going to attack them, is going to sneak up on them. It's the stories, it's the history that bears are bad and that we should be afraid of them. But the fact is, the last time anyone was killed by a bear was in the 1700s here in New Hampshire.

MONTGOMERY: Unlike the polar bear and grizzly, the black bear virtually never attacks. It runs away, as terrified of the person as the person is of the bear. Yet our fear remains, and Eric Orf says that's part of what makes the black bear's comeback so tenuous.

ORF: Human attitude has always driven the bear equation to a large degree. When we didn't want bear, our forefathers killed them off, suppressed them, so we've got a big job ahead of us. We know to educate people to live with bears and develop a bear-friendly attitude, I guess I might say.

MONTGOMERY: A poll the state commissioned in 1995 found that though some people were happy bears were coming back, more than half the respondents said they didn't want them. So Fish and Game launched a public information campaign called Something's Brewing: Learn to Live With Bears. It urges common sense. When bears wake up in April, take bird feeders and pet food inside. Store garbage carefully. And just as important is making sure bears have enough wild land they don't need to raid back yards for food. The regrowth of New England's forests offers a rare chance to live with bears. But as Eric Orf points out, each new house and road has the potential to fragment the bear's range.

ORF: You can have bear only when you have links to other bear, to a bigger population. And they do need to move 50 or 100 miles for food. And if that corridors through an urban area, then the probability of that bear not making it is vastly increased.

(Trickling water into a basin)

MAN: Making sure everything's clean.

MONTGOMERY: At University of Massachusetts, Amherst, bear biologist John McDonald is working with one of the most densely packed bear populations in the country.

McDONALD: These are the darts, the dart barrels, and you fill them up with drugs and push them into the bear.

MONTGOMERY: John is working on one of the longest continuous studies of black bears in North America. Today he's checking up on a bear who's been part of the study for 8 years, a 10-year-old female.

McDONALD: She's a pretty successful mother. She's -- I think she's only ever had 2 cub litters, but she usually raises both cubs.

MONTGOMERY: An earlier check on the bear's radio collar signal told John she's somewhere about 10 miles from the campus. Last winter she had 2 cubs, but he doesn't know if they've survived. On this sunny February afternoon he's going to try to find out.

(Car engine; slamming door)

MONTGOMERY: We're going with him, along with 15 students from the University's Wildlife Techniques class.

MAN: So this bear that you're going after today, do you know where it is right now?

McDONALD: No, I don't know exactly where she is.

MAN: So she could be out walking around or --

McDONALD: No, she's not out walking around. She's denned. If we get to the den you'll see where the yearlings have been out climbing around probably. She'll probably let us get within 30 yards or so and then take off. You never know. Sometimes we get lucky, too.

MONTGOMERY: As John fills syringes with tranquilizers the students learn to work the radio tracking equipment.

McDONALD: We would like to track our bear. He's already dialed in the frequency, which is 4022.

WOMAN: Is it special for that bear?

McDONALD: Exactly. Each bear has its own frequency so that you can basically dial up your bear and tell them apart.

MONTGOMERY: The receiver looks like a television antenna. The student swings it slowly, searching for the direction of the strongest signal.

(The radio chirps)

McDONALD: Yeah. Okay, good. Good good good.

MONTGOMERY (whispering): As we get closer to the den, the students wait behind while my producer and I follow John.

McDONALD: If I stop moving, you stop moving.

MONTGOMERY (whispers): Okay.

McDONALD: Don't catch up and stop moving.

MONTGOMERY (whispers): Okay.

McDONALD: It's probably within 100 yards, 110 yards.

MONTGOMERY (whispers): We know we're close and we don't want to scare her away.

McDONALD: You might see her run out ahead of us, if they do decide to run. She may be -- you know, in a big hollow tree or something, you don't know.


McDONALD: I need a flashlight.

MONTGOMERY (whispers): She's right here.

McDONALD (whispers): Two yearlings.

MONTGOMERY (whispers): The den's like a shallow cave beneath a slab of granite, its opening partially blocked by a log. I wedge my face into the opening and look directly into the dark brown eyes and tan snout of an adult female black bear.

McDONALD (whispers): Hold that light.

MONTGOMERY (whispers) Sure.

I ask John if he's drugged her yet.

McDONALD (whispers): Not yet. Not yet.


MONTGOMERY: My face, I realize, is less than 3 feet away from the jaws of a fully alert mother bear in her den with her 2 cubs.

(McDonald gives instructions [inaudible] in a whisper)

MONTGOMERY: The mother bear never whimpers or growls or snorts a threat, even while John pokes into her den with a 4-foot jab stick.

MAN: She down now?

McDONALD: Yeah, she's down.

MONTGOMERY: John has to get the mother out to tranquilize the cubs. Dragging a bear out of this tight space isn't easy.

McDONALD: You can get her paw, John; I'll get her head.

JOHN: All right. Let me just get my jacket.

MONTGOMERY: Finally out of the den, the cubs, both males, are almost as big as their mother. Fewer than half of all cubs survive their first year, but these yearlings are fat and healthy.

(A clanking sound; ambient conversation)

MONTGOMERY: Each bear gets hoisted on a scale hung from a tree branch.

JOHN: Sixty-one.

(More clanking.)

MONTGOMERY: After they're weighted, the bears lie groggily on a space blanket spread out in the snow. The students have rejoined us now, and they reach out to stroke and pat the shiny black fur.

WOMAN: The babies, you just want to cuddle them. Even the mother looks like a big teddy bear; you just want to hug them. (Laughs)

MONTGOMERY: The mother bear would stand less than 30 inches tall. Her weight, only 123 pounds, is about average for New England. This great black beast people fear so deeply seems more like a furry little waif.

McDONALD: Pull on that rope.

MONTGOMERY: Now it's another big effort to get the bears back in the den.

McDONALD: On your other side, you want it?

MAN: Well, I think so...

MONTGOMERY: When the drugs wear off in 40 minutes or so they'll be warm and dry, nestled like spoons. And we'll be long gone.

McDONALD: And you can see a den; you'd walk right by a place like this den, you know, and they'll let you walk right by them.

MONTGOMERY: As bears return to their natural range, the question is, can we let them walk right by?


MONTGOMERY: I'm Sy Montgomery for Living on Earth.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth