With more people. and more bears, there are more problems
And because there are also more people than ever before, sharing and encroaching on more bear habitat than ever before, there are bound to be more problems.
I've always liked bears, albeit from a distance, because even though our bears fear and loathe people and are typically in a great hurry to quit the scene whenever a human appears, they are unpredictable and you never quite know. Our black bears, often confused by the public with the much more aggressive brown and grizzly bears out West, are mostly shy and retiring. However, they have been known to attack and kill humans in unusual situations. The two more frequent scenarios for this involve people who inadvertently get between a mother and her cubs, or people who get too close to a bear that's become accustomed to associating people with food and thus too casual and callous in people's presence.
Back when I was living in Jefferson, just beyond the Waumbek where Cedric Phelps Road hits Route 2, my house was a way-station for wildlife workers, conservation officers, researchers and grad students — and my kids and I were thoroughly plugged in to what was happening on New Hampshire's wildlife scene.
Doug Kane and Kathleen Meddleton were using a camp on Cherry Mountain Road as a staging area to live-trap, radio-collar and track bears to their eventual denning-up sites in early winter, to provide data on habitat needs, birth-rates and territory.
Because of who I was, what I did and our fortunate location, I got to take two of my kids, Karen and Mike, along on two trips when Doug and Kathleen were digging out bear dens, tranquilizing the mother and hauling her out for various studies — and keeping the cubs warm while all this was going on.
That last part was where my kids came in. They were handed the tiny cubs to keep warm under their puffy parkas. Somewhere I have pictures of both kids with various little noses and beady eyes peeking out from sleeves and necklines.
All this did not romanticize bears in the least. These bears were in a controlled situation and manageable. Too often in my career I've seen, and am still seeing, the other side of the coin. Most of the time, this comes in the form of damages to livestock and property, but sometimes things can take a much uglier turn.
It's safe to say that the vast majority of bear incidents don't involve harm to people and are mostly based on food. And two things are at play in this regard. Some people are careless about food while camping, or downright negligent about garbage at home. Even worse, some people actually feed bears to get them, as the TV personalities say, “up close and personal,” to bond with them in a cute and cuddly way. It's hard to understand how people can be so irresponsible with a bear's own well-being (“A fed bear is a dead bear,” is the sad but true saying) or indifferent to consequences for their neighbors. Why people can't just admire bears from afar, or moose, for that matter, is beyond me. But as my ancestors would say, it takes all kinds.
At the tender age of 13 or so, while bird-hunting around an old farm opening at the edge of Hurlbert Swamp, I surprised a bear and her two cubs, which she immediately sent up a tree, while turning to face me.
Because I'd been conditioned by endless camp talk in endless camps about bears and situations in which bears were inevitably shot, my dimwitted teenage mind equated the term “bear” with “shoot,” so I did — and immediately regretted it. I'd shot not out of any need, but as a knee-jerk reaction. On the spot I vowed never to pull a trigger on a bear again. This pledge must have made its way around all of the Bear Kingdom, because I've been extremely lucky with seeing and encountering far more than any person's fair share of bears ever since.
Almost all of these events have been positive, the two exceptions being a bear that killed one of our best sheep and a bear that trashed my barn.
In a way, I was glad that I wasn't around to put my vow to the test when a good-sized bear went right through four strands of highly-charged electric fence, broke the neck of one of our best ewes and was dragging the carcass away when a neighbor surprised it on his way to work and it ran off into the woods, making, of course, another new hole in the fence. The incident, after all, was our fault. We had let the sheep into this particular pasture knowing full well that we could not put the guard dogs in with them, out of consideration for a neighbor bothered by their barking. We should have abandoned that particular pasture and put it into hay. It was another lesson in the old adage about bears being supreme opportunists. Not for nothing did the Indians and French voyageurs call them “cochon de bois” — pig of the woods.
This term of endearment proved true once again when I went downtown for a few minutes on a sunny day over this past Memorial Day weekend and, totally out of character, failed to close the big overhead doors on the main barn. I have two big trash containers, one in the barn and one in the adjacent shop. I am very careful about what goes into them and what does not — no food of any description, whatsoever.
But a lot of company comes through, and apparently someone had thrown inappropriate items into both containers — a candy-wrapper, the end of a sandwich, whatever — and that was all it took to capture the nose of a wandering bear, a bear extremely hungry after the long winter, a bear more than willing to be out and about in the middle of the day.
When I got back, the barn, shop and stable were a mess, thoroughly trashed by a bear intent on finding the source of the scents and in passing, sniffing out and gobbling up most of 30 pounds of birdseed, scattering the rest all over creation. And this on a crushed-rock floor.
It took me two hours to clean the mess up, using up all my best swear-words as I went. But I did my best not to curse the bear — there is, after all, that old “cochon de bois” business — and instead just hit myself on the head, in the best mea culpa way and frame of mind.
John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is Box 39, Colebrook 03576. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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