A Perfect Storm of Bears

Young American black bear. USFWS

Soon snow will cover the ground and bears will go to bed. Adirondackers are looking forward to the quiet. The place has been like a houseful of busy toddlers.

Throughout a dry summer, hungry black bears tried to break into people’s homes, cars, a candy store. With autumn rains the bears were better fed and less intrusive, but they were still seen around town; last month a young one strolled by the elementary school down the street from me.

“At this point we’re not really seeing bears causing trouble as much as we are seeing bears in the public’s view,” explains Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) wildlife biologist Ben Tabor. “A lot of bears come to town just like the deer because we have more forage in the village. There are fruit trees, there are cherry trees, there are grape vines. The food opportunities are greater.”

And it’s not just that a scarcity of rainfall led to a scarcity of wild food. It’s that there are so many bears, and many of them are young.

“I think last year was a very good food year, and I think a lot of our sows had more than two cubs, so when they woke up in the spring they had a lot of mouths to feed,” Tabor says.

“You have several good food years in a row, and all of the sudden you get a bad year.” Then, you have a lot of yearling, two- and three-year-old bears fending for themselves, probably not as wisely or discreetly as their elders.

Tabor says a colleague calls the situation “a perfect storm of bears.”

Mother bears generally den with their cubs their first winter, but when a sow has several young ones she sometimes kicks them out in autumn, Tabor says. He has also read several studies that suggest that younger bears are not as good at parenting. “It’s been shown that cub success increases as mothers get older,” he says. He hypothesizes that this year there may have been a lot of young mothers, and they may have run their offspring off after weaning in August. Couple those cubs with the unlucky ones who lost mothers to cars or disease. You end up with a lot of young wanderers.

Over the summer the DEC euthanized a dozen bears that had lost their wariness of humans and tried to break into homes around the Adirondack Park. So far this fall hunters are reporting a high bear take.

DEC biologists Ed Reed and Ben Tabor fit a radio collar on Yellow-Yellow, circa 2008. NYSDEC

Sadly, among those shot was one wise old mother bear, Yellow-Yellow, whom Tabor and DEC biologists grew to know well over the years. She gained fame in 2009 as the only bear in the country able to open BearVault “bear-proof” canisters. She plagued High Peaks hikers by burglarizing their food but was furtive, keeping her distance. Yellow-Yellow, named for the color of her ear tags, was about 20 years old. [CLARIFICATION: DEC wildlife staff believe that other bears may have been able to open earlier versions of the BearVault but that Yellow Yellow was the probably only one who had figured out how to open the newer double-lock design.]

When he got word of the bear’s demise, BearVault founder and friendly rival Jamie Hogan offered the following words: “Yellow Yellow was an extraordinary bear. Cindy [Taiclet] and I started BearVault to help save bears by reducing human food/bear conflicts with backpackers. Over the summer of 2007 Yellow Yellow developed a way to open our containers just like a hiker would do—except she would press in the plastic latch with her canine tooth instead of a human finger. It was amazing to see over that summer how she narrowed her attentions on the latch area with each of her successes. By the end of that summer she knew precisely how to open our canisters. We added a second latch in 2008 to foil her, but this did not slow her down at all, she just opened each latch in turn. She was a very unique bear—just what natural selection is really all about.”

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