Thursday, November 17, 2011

Black bears are returning, and I like it

(Ben G, a bear cub who lived in our house for a few weeks, a long time ago.)

I've waited 31 years for this day.  And then this week it happened.  We had definite evidence of a black bear in the neighborhood.  Two neighbors reported damage in their backyard that can only come from a bear, and one had the unmistakeable photo of muddy bear prints on his deck.  Bears have been reported sporadically in my county for about a decade or so.  I always assumed it was probably a young male who had dispersed from Pennsylvania to the south, but then a sow with cubs was spotted a couple of years ago.  Bears are definitely here now.  (New York State has always had three viable bear populations: on the Allegany Plateau in southwestern NY, the Catskill Mountains, and the Adirondacks.  But bears were extirpated in the rest of the state more than a century ago.)

We moved into our home in the young forest of upstate New York in 1980, when the trees on our property were only about 20 years old.  The hill on which we live had been a cattle pasture until 1960, so when the cattle were removed, trees with wind-blown seeds started to invade.  The forest was not very impressive, as forests go, for our first decade or two there.  But then, it began to look and feel like a real forest.  The trees got larger, dead trees fell over from wind or disease and began accumulating on the ground, patches of ferns and mosses and forest wildflowers like trout lily began to flourish.  Ash and maple and aspen were beginning to be replaced with oaks and hickories.  If I could just live another couple hundred years, I would really be impressed at the maturity that can only come with time.

But our 12 acres is not an island.  Our property is contiguous with hundreds of acres of more mature woodland, some of it part of a state forest.  So the bear template was in place on the landscape; it only needed to get older, more bear-like.  The habitat on my hill is no longer great for pheasants, grouse, or cottontails; it is now habitat for turkeys and bears and a wonderful variety of woodland songbirds.  All we needed was to add a couple of bears from Pennsylvania and, voila, you have the start of a viable bear population.

In the early 1980s I stood in front of the picture window in our living room and told my wife that before we leave here I'll bet we see a bear from this window.  Well, that has not happened yet, but it will.  It's getting close now.

For this old naturalist and nature lover, why is it important to have bears back in this ecosystem?   There is something special when you live or spend time in an environment where all or most of the biotic elements are still there.  In the case of bears, it adds a certain mystic or mystery to the forest that was not there before.  I don't have trilliums in my forest either, but their addition would not increase my wonderment nearly as much as having bears.  There is also an element of danger, of now having to look over your shoulder once in a while.  Not as intense as some places.  I spent a little time in East Africa, where there are elephants, buffalo, and lions, animals that can kill you in a New York minute.  And although black bears kill about as many people in North America every decade as grizzly bears (, the cost/benefit ratio of having black bears here is tolerable for me. (Because black bears are found in virtually every state, and grizzlies are found in only a few, the encounter rate between humans and black bears is much higher than the encounter rate with grizzly bears.  Only a tiny percentage of these encounters results in an attack).

In the eastern U.S., we sanitized the environment several centuries ago.  We cleared almost all of the forest, we shot or trapped all the big predators, we made the world safe for toddlers.  Western Europe has been this way for a long time; scenic pastoral vistas, but boring as hell biologically.  We were on our way to becoming as "safe" as western Europe, but the return of bears suggests we might be able to save some of what we almost lost.  Now, let's see what we can do about wolves and cougars.