Go west, young bear, and grow up in your own territory

Between a swimming pool and a picnic table, a black bear stands in Mike McManus’s Guilderland backyard. McManus is about to retire from running his business, Mike & Sons’ Pest Service, and finds irony in the bear’s visit.

GUILDERLAND — A black bear with large rounded ears and an inscrutable gaze has lumbered across suburban Guilderland this week, dipping in backyard pools, eating off grills, and visiting the school and the library — thrilling students and patrons.

Sightings of the bear started on Saturday in the Vaughn Drive neighborhood, according to Michael Clark, wildlife manager for Region 4 of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which covers nine Capital District counties, reaching into the northern Catskills.

“It’s likely the same animal,” he said. “It’s probably a 2-year-old.”

Cubs stay with their mothers, he explained, until the spring of their second year. Black bears hibernate for five months in winter. “They get kicked out for breeding … Some will find a mate,” said Clark.

“They are on their own,” Clark said of the 2-year-olds, “and sometimes displaced from traditional bear habitat by males with established territories.”

A bear at age 2 generally ranges in size from 75 to 125 pounds, Clark said. Bears can live to be over 10 years old, he said. An average adult male weighs about 300 pounds while females average 170 pounds.

Guilderland’s wandering bear could be either a male or a female. “You have to have a bear in hand to be able to tell,” Clark said of a bear’s gender.

 

 

 

Visiting Vaughn Drive

Mike McManus finds irony in the bear’s visit to his home at 135 Vaughn Drive on Monday morning.

“I’m in the nuisance wildlife business,” says the proprietor of Mike & Sons’ Pest Service. “I’m retiring in a few days; my kids are taking on the business.”

As if for a farewell salute to his trade, McManus discovered that the air-conditioning in his truck wasn’t working because of a “big mouse nest” built there. He and an employee were working to get the dead mouse out of his truck on Monday morning when the worker said, “Mike, look, there’s a bear in your yard.”

The wildlife pests McManus usually deals with are squirrels or possums, mice or skunks.

McManus’s property backs up to Elmwood Park on Russell Road, in the area of Schoolhouse Road in Guilderland, the easternmost part of town, close to the city of Albany and to the towns of Bethlehem and New Scotland.

McManus said the bear had been in his neighbor’s yard, too, and put a hole in the inflatable pool there along with eating some hot dogs.

In his own yard, the bear licked a grill pan, broke a hummingbird feeder, and stood on its hind legs to turn the rotating compost bin around.

McManus estimated the bear weighs about 100 pounds. “It’s last year’s cub, out looking for food,” he said.

McManus said he wasn’t afraid. “I thought it was funny,” he said. “I’m an avid outdoorsman. I hunt deer and turkey. I’m in the woods all the time.”

McManus has hunted bear, too, but, on seeing one during a bow-hunting trip, he decided not to shoot it. “It weighed about 350 pounds. I wouldn’t know what to do with it. You couldn’t eat it all,” he said, adding, “I can’t see killing an animal just to get a rug.”

McManus noted that he wouldn’t be allowed to kill a bear in his Guilderland yard. “You should not approach a bear,” said McManus.

Instead, he called the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “They said he’s been in the neighborhood the last three days,” reported McManus on Monday. “He’s turning into a suburban bear. He’s starting to show a lack of fear of people. They said they might set a trap.”

 

Can you believe it? Mike McManus points to a black bear turning the compost bin in his backyard on Monday morning.

 

Clark confirmed on Tuesday that the DEC had considered trapping the bear since it could become  a public health hazard if it stayed in a suburban neighborhood. Trapping or tranquilizing a bear, though, is a last resort, he said, explaining it can be a risk to the bear as well as to humans. In Region 4’s nine counties, trapping a bear is not even a once-a-year event, said Clark.

If a bear is trapped, the DEC tags it to identify the bear in the future, and relocates it, perhaps to the Catskills where there is more wild territory.

The DEC estimates that a minimum of 6,000 to 8,000 bears live in areas of New York State open to hunting, with 50 to 60 percent in the Adirondacks, 30 to 35 percent in the Catskills, and 10 to 15 percent in the central-western region of the state.

“We’ve had animals make huge treks to come back where they were from,” Clark said. Asked if bears make the return trek to stay with family, Clark said, “No, bears are solitary except for breeding season, from late May to early July. They stay in their territory unless moved by stronger animals.”

Bear heads west with stops at school and library

The Guilderland bear started heading west on Tuesday morning, and was seen early on June 19 near apartments off of Church Road, making a trap unnecessary, Clark said.

“This bear is continuing to head west … to more open and green spaces,” said Clark, “We didn’t need to trap it.”

The bear continued west from the apartment complex, about two miles, and was sighted at about 1 p.m. at Farnsworth Middle school, off of Route 155.

“A custodian notified me he saw a cub near one of our Dumpsters,” said Michael Laster, the middle school principal. “Law enforcement said they’d been following the bear for a week.”

It was fortunate that the bear made its appearance between classes, Laster said. A few students were hustled in from a physical education class on the other side of the building, he said.

The school went into a “lockout mode,” he said, explaining that means staff and students stay inside and the doors are locked. Laster notified the Guilderland Police. “They immediately deployed two patrol cars,” he said.

“The kids were excited and interested,” Laster said. “A lot of kiddos were looking out the windows … They were asking, ‘Did you see the bear? Did you see the bear?’”

The bear was last seen crossing Route 155 away from the middle school at around 2:15, Laster said.

“I hope the cub finds its way,” he concluded.

 

 

The bear was sighted next at about 3:25 p.m., less than a mile west, at the Guilderland Public Library off of Route 20. The library’s director, Timothy Wiles, was at work in his office when, he said, “Someone came running in and said, ‘There’s a bear in the garden!’”

Wiles locked the door leading from the library to its literary garden. The garden is often used for children’s story times, but this was not a fairy-tale bear come to life; it was the real thing.

“Overall, we wish more people knew about and used our literary garden. But, on this occasion, we were happy it was empty,” said Wiles.

“Word travels fast,” he went on. “There are probably 25 windows along the back wall of the library. Patrons and staff were at every window with cell phones, taking pictures and videos.”

Wiles himself stood on a chair to take the video posted with this story.

The library had received an email earlier in the day about the bear at Farnsworth but had paid little heed. The library, in turn, informed its nearest neighbors — Our Lady of Mercy Life Center, and St. Peter’s Addiction Recovery Center, known as SPARC.

Wiles estimated that the bear was on library grounds for eight to 10 minutes. “We have a fence between the library and SPARC,” he said. “The bear climbed over the 8- to 10-foot fence and off he went.”

“A fed bear is a dead bear”

To keep a bear out of suburban neighborhoods, Clark advised, “The best thing is to remove the food.”

Bears are omnivores, eating grasses, berries, fruit, nuts, seeds, insects, grubs, and carrion as well as human food like corn, honey, bird seed, trash, and pet food. Since they spend a great deal of time exploring for food, this can bring them close to humans.

“In suburbia, there are all kinds of food sources,” said Clark. “Bird feeders are huge attractants,” he said, and went on to name garbage, pet food, compost piles, and grills as other attractants.

“They’re driven by their stomachs,” Clark said of bears. “Young bears are trying to put on weight. If a bear is rewarded through food and not harassed, it has no reason to leave.”

When a bear, like the one in Guilderland, lingers in suburbia, Clark said, “We’ll try to run the animal out through hazing.” He called this “negative conditioning” and said it can consist of blasting air horns or shooting rubber buckshot at a bear. “It’s non-lethal,” he said of the rubber buckshot. “It stings the bear to teach it not that this is not the place for bears to be.”

Similarly, residents can stand at a safe distance from a bear and bang pots and pans. But the DEC advises, “Never approach, surround, or corner a bear. Bears aggressively defend themselves when they feel threatened. Be especially cautious around cubs as mother bears are very protective.”

Never run from a bear, the DEC advises. Rather, it says, “Stay calm, speak in a loud and calm voice, slowly back away, and leave the area ... Throwing objects at a bear will only encourage bears to approach and ‘bully’ people to get food.”

In a building, people are to give a bear a clear escape route, leaving doors open as they back away. If a bear charges, the DEC advises, “Stand your ground … Intimidate by making yourself look bigger by waving arms, clapping, shouting, banging sticks. Prepare to fight or use bear spray.”

The DEC concludes, “If the bear makes contact with you, fight back with anything at hand (knife, Stick, rocks, fists).”

Clark sums up a bear’s motives this way: “They are looking for food, water, and shelter without being harassed … If you have a bad, dry summer with not a lot of natural forage that can drive them into more habitated areas.

“They are opportunistic feeders; they are very smart. It’s bad if bears are taught to associate food with people. Why would a bear hike up a mountain for food if he can go door-to-door?” asks Clark.

He recited a worthwhile slogan: “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

Once bears become used to getting food from humans, whether people intentionally feed them or are merely careless in leaving food about, “Bears become brash and bold,” said Clark. “For public safety, we have to euthanize these animals.”

He went on, “There are regulations on the books that it is unlawful to feed bears, even unintentionally; it’s a ticketable offense.”

Clark concluded, “If you see a bear, the last thing you want to do is draw a crowd. As a defense mechanism, a bear will go up a tree. With a crowd watching, they’ll never go down.”

Citizen scientists sought

A new citizen-scientist project called iSeeMammals seeks to collect data to help researchers study the distribution and size of the black bear population in New York State. The project is run by the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Cornell University, and the DEC.

Anyone can participate, collecting information on where and when they see bears or bear signs like scat, tracks, hair, or markings while on hikes or recorded on their personal trail cameras. An app for data collection and submission is available for free download in Apple and Android stores.

Citizen scientists can collect data in areas that researchers can’t reach since more than half of New York is privately-owned land, which is more accessible to citizen scientists than to researchers.

Black bears were chosen as the target species for the pilot project for iSeeMammals, the project’s website says, because they “are iconic and recognizable. Many enjoy seeing wild bears. As bear populations in New York rebound from habitat loss and historical unregulated hunting, bear population levels need to be safe for both wildlife and people. To manage the bear population, wildlife researchers and managers need data on their population size, occupancy, and distribution across the state.”


Updated on June 19, 2018: Information from Michael Clark, Michael Laster, and Timothy Wiles was added.

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