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

Black Bears

Air Date: Week of

People who live in rural communities get used to living with wild animals like cougars, moose and bears. But folks in suburban Boston aren’t as used to having black bears for neighbors, and their numbers are becoming more numerous because of habitat restoration and restrictions on hunting. Steve Tripoli of member station WBUR in Boston reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As wildlife populations rebound throughout the nation and cities sprawl into previously wild country, people are running into wild animals more and more often. And few seem to attract more attention or anxiety than bears. In New England, for example, black bears are back in bigger and bigger numbers, and some wonder just how big a bear population people can tolerate. As Steve Tripoli of member station WBUR discovered on a recent trip to bear country in Massachusetts, there are no easy answers.


TRIPOLI: It's pouring in the woods of western Massachusetts. We are far from any paved road, or even what most folks would consider a road. We're standing around a radio receiver that's shielded under the camouflage rain jacket of State Fisheries and Wildlife Officer Dave Fuller, and listening for a chirping sound.


TRIPOLI: The sound is broadcast by a second radio, attached to a leather collar somewhere in these woods. Fuller hopes the collar is attached to a female black bear named Sharon, as it has been for three years. Officials have been collaring Massachusetts black bears for almost a decade to get a fix on how many are here and where they live. Fuller homes in on the strongest signal, turning a hand-held antenna first this way, then that.

FULLER: I keep getting the best signal off in this direction. Seems to be the strongest. That's probably northeast. This is about a medium, medium sound signal. So if we're in line of sight, it might be a couple miles away. But if she's in a valley, she may be a lot closer. She may be only a half-mile away.

TRIPOLI: Fuller and his companions are out in this downpour because they're concerned about Sharon's collar. It needs replacing. Batteries die. The collars themselves wear out. Then it's easier for bears to slip them off. Easier yet when it's wet outside, so the rain is all the more reason to find Sharon today. Our caravan of off-road vehicles makes two more stops. Fuller listens through his headset. Then he orders us back to the middle stop, listens again, and gives the signal. We'll go in here.


TRIPOLI: Four hunting hounds bound out of their cages in the back of one truck, bells ringing on their collars as they shake off the rain. In another truck, tranquilizer darts are prepared. The plan is to use the radio to get close, let the dogs chase Sharon up a tree, then knock her out with tranquilizer, change her collar, and stay with her until she's on her feet again.

(Footfalls through puddles and mud)

TRIPOLI: We slog through sodden woods and swollen streams for half an hour, closing in. The radio tells us we're near. The dogs smell bear, too. We're warned to look down as we walk so we don't trip right over Sharon. Then, disappointment.

FULLER: We got it. There it is.

MAN: It fell off, Dave.

FULLER: Well, it's off, however it came off.

MAN: And it didn't break off.


TRIPOLI: Sharon's collar is on the ground, but Sharon's not in it. She slipped out, probably quite recently, and now she's lost to research. Just a few feet from the collar, the dogs come up with something else.

FULLER: Look at that, Mike. Mike, right there.

MIKE: Oh, yeah. It's a skull. See it right at your feet?

TRIPOLI: It's a bear skull. The wildlife team quickly determines it's not Sharon's, but it lends credence to something they already know. These western counties are the bear capital of Massachusetts. After almost ten years tracking bears this way, researchers think there are between 1,800 and 2,000 bears in Massachusetts. That's up from just a couple of dozen 50 years ago, before New England states began to restrict bear hunting. But this wildlife success story also brings thorny problems. Bears cause property damage, mostly on farms. And though they generally fear humans, there's worry someone will get hurt as contact between people and bears increases. Bears have been spotted several times in the Boston suburbs. And wildlife officers had to tranquilize one near downtown in the small city of Northampton. That causes people to worry, some about the bears and some about what is or isn't being done about them. Stephanie Hagopian of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says state wildlife agents aren't very creative when it comes to dealing with bears and other encroaching animals.

HAGOPIAN: Oftentimes I meet with people who have already met with our state agency, and people are not getting informed. What they get is, "Invite a trapper on your property. You've got to kill these animals." That's what they get when they call their state wildlife biologist.

TRIPOLI: Hagopian says non-lethal methods, like electric fences, guard dogs, pellet rifles, and pepper spray should be part of the anti-bear arsenal. Wildlife officials say they know and talk about these options all the time. State wildlife biologist Mike Ciborowski deals with bear complaints in western Massachusetts, where bears are an increasing problem on farms.

CIBOROWSKI: You talk to the farmers, and see if we haven't made every effort.

TRIPOLI: To do what? What do you tell them?

CIBOROWSKI: To inform them of all the possible options. We even have model electric fencing that we can set up for them. We have information we give out to them.

TRIPOLI: But many farmers will tell you that having options and being able to use them can be two different things.

(Footfalls through grasses)

SCRANTON: You see all this flattened down like this, up and down through here? This is bear damage.

TRIPOLI: On Mark Scranton's farm in the rural town of Colrain, in the heart of what looks like an undamaged corn field, you can see what bears can do. A visit just before harvest shows room-sized sections of tall corn flattened. Cobs are strewn about, picked clean or half-clean. Bear droppings are evident. Mark Scranton says the scene is not uncommon.

SCRANTON: Well, I've seen bigger spots than this, and we'll see more spots. This is what he does. He comes in here, he lays down, he reaches out with his paw, you know, he's been eating berries. He'll come in here, roll in here, wipe his butt in here. You know, they like corn.

TRIPOLI: No one knows how much damage bears are doing. Farmers often don't report. But wildlife officials say many farms have been hit. Mark Scranton farms with his father and brother, growing corn for their dairy herd. They've spoken with wildlife officials and the family knows their options.

SCRANTON: We've got eleven corn fields, okay? By the time you ever fenced them all, the fencing operation, I would say, would be more costly than your loss of your corn.

TRIPOLI: In Massachusetts, farmers can shoot a bear in their fields any time, not just in the short hunting season. But Scranton says that won't work for a dairy farmer, either.

SCRANTON: Well, the best time to bear hunt is early morning, late afternoon, and I milk twice a day. So, I don't take the time to go looking for them. I'd shoot him if he'd come across me.

TRIPOLI: It goes back and forth like this between farmers and animal activists, and not just about bears. In Massachusetts and many states, populations of deer, coyotes, beavers, moose, geese, and other animals are also on the rise. Wildlife officials here mostly agree with farmers that solutions aren't as easy as they might seem. But activists like Stephanie Hagopian say everyone from farmers to officials to suburban families can do more to deter wild animals. Hagopian says urban and suburban families especially can be taught a calmer approach when big animals visit.

HAGOPIAN: We feel strongly about education and, well, people will call. I've had people say they are feeling afraid. And so, once you first of all deal with their feelings and try to calm the person down and give them good information about what's happening, oftentimes, 99 percent of the time, people calm down and feel, in many cases, a lot more tolerance for the animal that's in their back yard.

TRIPOLI: Hagopian says public sentiment has been shifting toward non-lethal animal management. Massachusetts voters banned many traps and most hunting with dogs three years ago, but there was a divide. Rural areas oppose the ban. Now, with bear populations rebounding, there's been a compromise. Starting next year, the September bear hunting season will expand from six to eighteen days. The expanded hunt raises the question of what the state's ideal bear population should be. Wildlife officials believe the roughly 2,000 bears out there now are the maximum that people will tolerate. Biologist Mike Ciborowski says the environment can support more, but that's not the only consideration.

CIBOROWSKI: There are two populations. There's the biological population that the habitat can support. And there's the population that society can live with, without finding it terribly expensive or terribly, you know, inconvenient.


CIBOROWSKI: See, the dogs even smell a fresher bear scent in here...

TRIPOLI: As research finds bears ever-closer to humans, a new compromise may be in the making. Some activists wouldn't mind if dogs are reintroduced, but only to scare bears away. Many activists also accept the farmers' calls for compensation. The hope is that if no one has to suffer disproportionately, people can learn to live with bears, and maybe other growing animal populations, too. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Tripoli.



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