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Courtesy Adirondack Life Magazine
Written by John Adamski
More than 5,000 bruins and 150,000 humans call the Adirondack Park home. Is there room for everyone?
When Louis Berchielli, a wildlife biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), goes into the den, watching football isn’t on his mind. Based in Albany, Berchielli has been the state’s reigning expert on black bears for thirty years, and squirming into their dens is all in a day’s work. He says he’s driven by “the desire to learn more about bears and to collect data to monitor the bear population.” His knowledge is vital to our understanding of these native mammals, and his research has helped humans and bears coexist.
Berchielli estimates the number of black bears in the Adirondacks is “probably around five thousand at its annual peak [winter and spring] . . . the highest that it’s been in a hundred to 150 years.” The animals have adapted well to the settlement of the region, he says, and New York harbors one of the largest black bear populations of any eastern state; more than ninety percent of those bears reside in the Adirondack Park. Berchielli believes there is room for expansion just outside the park but not inside the Blue Line. He’s concerned about the interaction between a large bear population and people: “If you are in the Adirondacks . . . you are in bear habitat.”
Black bears (Ursus americanus) are native to most of North America, except parts of California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Utah, and they maintain ranges in deep woods or swampy areas. This species is normally black—often with a white throat patch and brown muzzle—but cinnamon, brown and bluish color phases also occur. E. Laurence Palmer’s Fieldbook of Natural History (1949) recognizes ten subspecies. (The brown phase of the black bear should not be confused with the Alaskan brown bear, which is a subspecies of the much larger North American grizzly. Those bears inhabit northern Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and the western third of Canada. The ranges of both species overlap, but black bears far outnumber grizzlies.)
The black bear begins life in its mother’s winter den in late January or early February. Females typically give birth to two cubs every other year, but triplets are common among older, healthy sows. Adult bears do not eat while denned and survive on stored body fat. Cubs, however, have voracious appetites in the den. At birth they weigh about nine ounces, which is no bigger than a chipmunk. In six weeks they can gain six pounds or more solely on a diet of milk. Through summer and fall, the youngsters grow to a hundred pounds in preparation for spending the winter in their mother’s den. Adult males—boars—do not participate in child-rearing and have been known to kill and eat their offspring. Cubs stay with their mother, who fiercely protects them, even from boars, for about eighteen months. She leaves them when she’s ready to breed again.
According to Berchielli, the average Adirondack sow weighs 160 pounds in the fall, before denning. Boars weigh twice that much. The heaviest New York State black bear on record, shot in 1975 near Tupper Lake, weighed 750 pounds. Although a bear’s normal life span is eight to ten years, Berchielli knows of two that lived more than forty years: one was shot in the 1970s and the other died in 1990. Bears can die of old age but the most common cause of mortality is big-game season. (In the Adirondacks, numbers have increased dramatically as hunting has declined. Estimates from the early 1900s suggested there were a thousand black bears here.) “Early bear season” in the Adirondacks this year begins September 13, and there is no size or sex limit, but a hunter may kill only one animal. The big-game season ends the first Sunday in December.
Black bear activity is most noticeable in the spring, when they emerge from dens. Contrary to popular belief, black bears do not truly hibernate. They may leave and reenter their winter lairs periodically. A den can be a cave, an elaborate excavation or simply a hollow log. Some years, bears hole up as early as September; sometimes they don’t depart until the beginning of May. They may winter anywhere, but dens on north-facing slopes have more snow to provide natural insulation.
After months of fasting and a thirty-percent weight loss, finding food is a springtime priority. First they graze like cattle to gently awaken dormant digestive systems. Later they’ll eat anything from honey to road kill. Although classified a carnivore, the bulk of the black bear’s natural diet consists of insects, nuts, seeds, grasses, other plant fibers and carrion. They are especially fond of berries and may occasionally catch small mammals as they flip logs looking for ants or grubs. Fish play a minimal part in the black bear’s diet, and in the Adirondacks, they have limited occasions to learn how to catch fish. Bears are crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk. Naturally wary of people, they typically wait until dark before approaching an attractive food source.
Berchielli cites the animals’ quest for accessible, abundant food as the cause of the majority of bear problems. “If our activities provide enough opportunities for bears to obtain food, the food serves as positive reinforcement for the bears’ actions,” he explains. “The bear then learns to seek out similar opportunities for additional positive reinforcement—food. It will learn to take advantage of anything from hanging backpacks to coolers on picnic tables. It’s rare, but they can even learn to break into cars to obtain food.”
Berchielli recalls one bruin that entered a campsite, and—as the campers watched—stepped over a cooler full of food to grab a garbage bag. “Why didn’t the bear go after the food in the cooler?” he asks rhetorically. “It was used to taking advantage of garbage bags that lined the road during the night before garbage pickup. It probably didn’t have sufficient opportunity to learn about coolers. The overwhelming food odors from supper attracted the bear, which recognized the familiar garbage bag, grabbed it and ran.”
Adirondack dumps used to be the places to spot bears. These garbage pits have been closed since the 1990s or capped and converted to fenced transfer stations. Berchielli says the reliance on landfills had both a positive and negative impact on black bears: “They gained some nutrition, but most of what they ate wasn’t really good for them.” Landfills concentrated the animals and conditioned them to seek out garbage. Dumps that welcomed tourists habituated the bears to people, prompting them to lose their natural fear of humans. This led to problems at homes and camps, decreasing the public’s tolerance for bears. And the animals become easy targets for illegal hunting at some landfills.
For many years these landfills provided visitors with a practically guaranteed chance to see bears. “While this may have been good for some businesses,” says Berchielli, “it wasn’t natural. People were seeing atypical bear behavior in a very unaesthetic place. People no longer valued seeing a bear as a unique opportunity and associated bears with garbage rather than with the beautiful forest of the Adirondacks.” After the demise of open landfills, intentional bear feeding seemed to increase, though DEC regulations prohibit it. But seasonal and full-time residents have learned more about bear behavior, and conflicts with the animals have decreased.
Gathering new information about black bears depends on scientific observation and technology. Finding a winter den is not a simple task and usually requires an electronic tracking device. Such telemetry involves fitting a bear with a collar that transmits radio signals picked up by a receiver.
Before someone from the DEC collars a bear, one has to be caught. The device that the conservation department uses is a culvert trap made from an eight-foot length of metal pipe, three feet in diameter, mounted on a trailer. The entrance is at one end, and a trigger-release rod is at the other. Secured to the rod is a net bag full of an irresistible bear treat: two dozen stale pastries drenched in smoked-meat drippings. A tug on the bag triggers a quarter-inch-thick steel door to shut behind the animal, blocking its escape.
Four-inch holes at each end of the trap provide ventilation and allow conservation department staff to inject a tranquilizer dart on a telescoping pole. Adult bears are never handled unless sedated. Because the trap is trailer-mounted, a troublesome animal can be relocated.
Telemetry has enabled the DEC to monitor the animals’ year-round activity by aircraft or motor vehicle. With radio collars, they’ve determined that Adirondack boars range up to a hundred square miles, while sows cover less than twenty. This technology is also essential in pinpointing winter den locations, and Berchielli relates one unusual experience: Digging into a snowbound den, tranquilizer dart in hand, he found only a radio collar—no bear. Entering a den is “always very interesting and can be exciting, but it’s not really dangerous if you know what you’re doing,” he says. “Each bear is different; . . . their actions have evolved to prevent contact. There’s no mistaking it when an adult bear wants you to back up or leave the den. But if you leave too quick, the bear will usually follow you out and take off—which is exactly what we don’t want to happen.” New cubs are unable to escape, so they are apt to bite or scratch if stressed. Berchielli’s been scratched by cubs, but he’s never been seriously injured, even though he’s touched or been touched by unsedated adult bears on a few occasions.
Berchielli’s three decades with these Adirondack giants have led to his own lore. “It’s been suggested that I’ve never met a bear that I didn’t like. Well, that’s not really true,” he says. “I’ve been involved with bears that have caused extensive damage, in rare cases human injury, and in one case a human fatality [two years ago a bear killed an infant in the Catskills]. You can’t like those bears, but I do enjoy the challenge of working with all bears. Their ability to learn by association and their persistence can be very challenging.”
Dealing with Split Ear, an infamous boar from Old Forge, was just such a challenge. Like many other bears, his nuisance behavior stemmed from handouts and easy access to garbage and bird feeders. He stood out from other town bears because of a ripped ear, probably torn in a fight, and his massive size. “He weighed 684 pounds one year when we handled him,” says Berchielli. “We were refining aversive conditioning techniques [using rubber bullets and pepper spray], and he made an excellent test subject. We were very successful in abating his activities. Unfortunately, the feeding and access to garbage and bird food was always there to start him back into his old ways and eventually his illegal destruction. Since he was so identifiable, it was easy to see the progression. He was a favorite because he was very unique and challenging.”
Calm, careful, patient and meticulous, Berchielli has an intimate knowledge of—and the uncanny ability to predict—bear behavior. He knows how they think. His compassion and respect are obvious as he performs routine physical and dental examinations that often include a blood test, age and weight determination, vaccinations, or treatment of old wounds.
Berchielli, a dedicated outdoorsman, enjoys hunting, trapping and fishing, but he rarely takes time off. “The last real extended vacation I had was in 1996,” he says, “when I took off three weeks and my wife and I went to McNeil River in Alaska to view the brown bears.” What else?