Friday, June 5, 2009

Black bears are harmless

From the 08 June 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Three years ago I was turkey hunting in Allegany County when I did something no successful hunter should ever do. I fell asleep. Getting up well before sun-up, hiking the hills, and then sitting quietly under a tree with the warm May sun beating on you can have that effect.

Maybe ten minutes into my nap I was awakened by a snapping stick. I quickly woke up, thinking a turkey was coming in to me. As my sleepy eyes adjusted to the light I saw a black shape just ahead of me. I quickly realized that it wasn’t a turkey. It was a black bear less than 15 yards away, coming right at me!

I didn’t freak out. I didn’t blast him with my shotgun. Instead, I did what you are supposed to do in such close quarters. I stood up, spread my arms to make myself appear larger and yelled “get!” And, boy did he ever! The 250-pound beast grunted, spun around and hightailed it to a spot 50 yards away where he paced back and forth trying to figure out what just happened. A minute later he trotted away, obviously in fear.

My guess is that prior to me going into “attack” mode he didn’t know I was there because I was camouflaged and he was only heading to my exact spot because he had been downwind of me and caught a whiff of my deodorant. He probably figured there was something pleasant-smelling in the woods that he could eat.

The encounter with that bear is one of a dozen that I’ve had in Western New York over the years. Under all such circumstances I wasn’t the one who was afraid. The bear was. Each and every encounter resulted in the bear either walking or running in the other direction after the bruin realized there was a human present.

As an outdoorsman and naturalist – and one who has experienced it first-hand - I know that black bears are harmless creatures, more afraid of us than we are of them. But, unfortunately, most people do not know this. Hollywood has them believing that all bears are deadly man-killers while the Discovery Channel has them wrongly assuming that all bears are aggressive, 900-pound grizzlies.

I really can’t blame people for being scared either. Even without the media influence a bear sighting can be a naturally disconcerting experience. Except for deer, most animals of the woods are wee little things like chipmunks and coyotes, so when a creature the size of a bear appears out of nowhere it can frighten even the strongest of souls.

That’s what happened recently in Niagara County. We were visited by a bear no bigger than a cub. Being that he was something out of the norm, he startled the people who saw him and had them worried about the safety of their pets and children. The subsequent television news coverage caused thousands of others - city dwellers and rural folk alike - to worry if their lawn might be the next one visited by a bear.

It might just be. This bear will be the first of many to visit our area. In recent years they have become more common in southern Erie County and have been making regular appearances in populous Monroe County, in 2007 getting as close to us as Brockport and Hamlin. They are on the move because their population is growing (2008’s bear hunting take in the Allegany region exceeded the old record by 60 percent, indicative of the population explosion) and the local lands that were once small family farms have grown into brush or woodlots, becoming more attractive habitat.

Don’t be afraid of these bears. Despite their size, teeth and claws they are relatively docile. Black bear attacks are extremely rare. There are roughly 900,000 bears in North America that result in, on average, just over two human injuries per year. Since 1900 there have been 57 people in the US and Canada killed by black bears. In comparison, man’s best friend sends 1,000 people to the hospital every day for bite wounds and dogs kill about 36 people in the US every year.

Nonetheless, don’t go out of your way to be a friend to bears. Whatever you do, don’t feed them and don’t approach them. You wouldn’t do that to a fox, opossum or raccoon. Bears are wild animals and, like all those wild animals, they can turn. Just keep your distance and appreciate them for what they are, a fascinating and rarely-seen part of the natural world. You should count yourself as lucky – not unlucky - if you happen to see one. Accept their visits to your neighborhood with open arms…or with spread arms and healthy yelp if that makes you any feel safer.

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