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Bears on the Move

Spring and summer are odd times for black bears. Think about it, after months of hibernation they emerge from their dens hungry and restless. That time of year, food is still a little thin in the forest, so they must widen their ranges to meet their needs. And once June comes around, their needs expand to more than just food – the black bear mating season begins in early June and peaks in early July. During this time, a black bear can travel hundreds of miles to find a mate.

Is it any wonder that most bear-human conflicts occur this time of year? It seems every summer, I read reports of black bears causing trouble in some park or shopping mall. These incidents have led to increased hunting opportunities in urban areas, not only in an attempt to thin the burgeoning population of black bears, but also to give them at least some sense of fear of humans.

These incidents aren't limited to urban areas, though. Last week I was at camp and fried up a mess of trout for dinner. Unwittingly, I dumped the excess cooking grease in the front yard. After dinner I took a short drive to look for deer and returned to find a small bear sitting on my doorstep practically licking my front door. I joke that he had utensils in each paw and a bib tucked under his throat, waiting for me to show myself.

I told this to a guy in the area and he informed me that the camp a hundred yards down the road liked to feed bears all summer long. He said it was common to see three or four bears feeding in that camp’s backyard right before dark.

Here's some advice: if you or anyone you know is intentionally feeding wildlife, please notify your neighbors. If you can't talk to them in person, then slip a note under their door. I'm sure they'd appreciate the heads up.

Black bears are the most common species of bear in North America. Currently, 28 states offer black bear hunting seasons. Roughly 500,000 licenses are sold to bear hunters annually. Despite their abundance, though, black bears do a good job of avoiding humans. In many cases a black bear can be living nearby and residents might never even know it. Several years ago, I went on a black bear tagging trip with the Pennsylvania Game Commission in Ligonier, PA, and they talked of odd places where they’ve found bears denning. One such place was under a cap a guy had taken off of his truck and set in the backyard.

Most times, though, a bear den is located in a remote area of forest. Over the years, I’ve found only two bear dens on my own, and both times they were in areas not fit for a human being due to the rugged country.

A bear den does not always have to be a big hole in the ground, although the ones I’ve found were indeed that. Then again, I believe I only found those dens because they were so obvious. When you see a big opening in some rocks with bear hair and paw prints all around it, chances are you’ve found a den. Truth be known, you have a better chance of walking right past a bear den without ever realizing it.

When I attended the bear tagging expedition with the PGC, they took me to a den located in a huge cut. The cut was less than five years old and thick as could be. One of the researchers tranquilized the sow and two cubs with a dart gun, and then the rest of us moved in to take a look. Surprisingly, the den was on top of the ground, right out in the wide open. No rocks, no shelter. The only thing concealing the bears was the cut.

If you find yourself camping or hiking in black bear country this summer, you really don’t have anything to worry about as long as you don’t leave open containers of food lying around for extended periods of time. Clean up after cooking and store your food in containers away from your tent. Never store food inside your tent in bear country, and never approach a sow with cubs. If a sow with cubs crosses your path, slowly and quietly back away and leave the area. A little caution goes a long way in preventing bear-human conflicts.

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