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  • by Chris Stewart

Ursus Americanus Facts

Several weeks ago, a marauding black bear abducted a screaming pig from a farm on the West Side Road during a midnight raid. Across the state at North Woodstock, bears brazenly ransacked a garbage bin behind a downtown restaurant. While down on the Kancamagus Highway campers watched with dismay as their picnic lunch disappeared in the clutches of another wandering Ursus Americanus.

Over the past few summers incidents like these have become commonplace in New Hampshire and no one can explain just why. "What causes it? I wish we knew," said Henry Laramie, the NH Fish and Game Department's Game Management Supervisor. "If we knew, we'd pass a law against it."

Although precise reasons for the increasing number of nuisance bears prove difficult to pinpoint, Laramie believes that the state's changing environment is one of the contributing factors. "Since the late 1800's," he noted, "New Hampshire has gradually lost its farmlands. It wasn't too long ago that the state was 80% farmland and 20% forested; now those percentages are reversed." This reforestation has allowed the bears to expand their breeding grounds from the northern counties of Grafton, Carroll, and Coos southward, though the total number of bears appears to have stabilized. "On a state-wide basis, their population hasn't increased markedly in the past few decades," he continued, "it has simply spread out. Today we find bears in every part of the state."

Bears weren't always so prolific. In past times when New Hampshire boasted more farmlands, men viewed bears as enemies to be eradicated since the animals competed not only for habitat but for man's food as well. Land clearing for crops and livestock, and widespread hunting pushed the bears into the state's northern forests. "Whenever man runs into a competing animal, he puts a price on its head," Laramie observed. "Encounters with the bear proved this point." This was reflected by the fact that there used to be a bounty on bears and an open season, policies which kept bear populations low, In1956 the legislature ended the bounty on bears, and today the forests have grown back and the bears are tolerated.

Still, explaining the recent outbreak of nuisance bears baffles most experts. "There's an awful lot we don't know about the animals and their habits," Laramie remarked, "and they're extremely difficult to study. When you figure that a bear has a range of 20-80 miles, it's mighty hard to pin a particular animal down." While experts agree that the state's bear population thrives, they can only guess about the bear's erratic behavior. "Because of the severe frost damage over the winter, people speculate that the lack of blueberries, raspberries and other edible vegetation has forced the bears to leave the woods to look for food elsewhere. If this is the case, it contributes to more run-ins with people."

Like man, the bear is an omnivore and eats a wide range of foods. Its diet ranges from meat and vegetables, to insects, grubs, and garbage. "It's not unusual to find a bear out grazing in a field like a cow," Laramie added. "The point is that bears eat whatever's available." Equipped with flat-crowned teeth like humans, bears can easily consume the foods that man eats. "Since they eat anything we do, and we tend to waste a lot, the bears take up the slack and go for the garbage," he continued. The recent closing of many town dumps - places where bears found free and plentiful meals - may also have forced bears to more bold foraging techniques.

When reports of nuisance bears reach the Fish and Game Department, wardens swing into action. If a bear has merely tipped over garbage cans or romped through a campground on a search for edibles, game wardens follow a policy of trapping and transporting the offending bear. After capturing the bear in a culvert or cable trap, the animal is sedated and a series of tests is conducted. Officers weigh the animal, take a blood sample, record its sex, tag its ears (for future identification), and remove a tiny tooth from behind the bear's canine. "From the tooth's growth rings, wardens can determine the bear's age, much in the same way you read rings on a tree," Laramie explained. "When we get the opportunity, we like to find out as much as possible."

After conducting these tests, game wardens transport the trapped bear as far away from its home as possible, sometimes traveling a distance of 100 miles. Although it is not unusual for these bears to return to their habitat, it is odd for these first offenders to repeat as nuisance animals. "For some reason," Laramie observed, "these bears are seldom trapped again. It's something in the bear's make-up which cause this, but we're not sure just what it is. These offenders - usually the older males - are frequently killed within a year or two by hunters."

Two years ago, in a continuing effort to learn more about the bear population and behavior, the Fish and Game Department initiated a program studying the bear's reproduction system. By determining the age at which female bears begin bearing young, and by tracking the age of bears killed in the state's annual hunting season, Fish and Game Department officials hope to more accurately measure the number of bears and thus plan for better management techniques in the future. "We haven't collected enough data to predict any trends," Laramie reported, "but we have come up with a puzzling statistic which shows an unusually high percentage of 2 1/2 year old bears in the state."

While severe winters or a diminished food supply may prevent successful breeding, most females produce offspring beginning at age three. Because bears mate in July and deliver in February, female bears taken in the hunting season (beginning September 1st) can supply the Fish and Game Department with valuable information. "We don't know when New Hampshire bears begin reproducing," Laramie continued. "In Oregon studies found that the average age for bearing young began at 6 1/2 years, while other states have found the average to be 3 1/2 years. If we can get the cooperation of the state's hunter, we will know much more in the next few years."

With this in mind, the Department of Fish and Game will circulate pamphlets at all bear hunting check-in stations this fall. "We need to examine the reproductive tracts of females before the animal is butchered if this program is going to be successful," he said. "We also follow up this pamphleting with telephone calls to the hunters to insure more complete results." Since all kills must by law be reported to check-in stations within 12 hours after the hunt, the Department holds high hopes for the success of their project.

While this study aims to add to the knowledge of New Hampshire's bear population, the behavior of bears has been observed for many years. Bears almost always run away from contact with humans, but they won't avoid taking advantage of a penned-in animal if the opportunity presents itself. "There's no doubt that bears kill sheep or will carry off a pig, however rare the occurrence," Laramie said, "and the state demands that these bears are killed."

Laramie see this as a waste. "It's a foolish law which says we must exterminate bears that have attacked farm livestock. As it is, the state reimburses the farmer at the going rate for his lost animal, and most of the offending bears would be killed in future hunts anyway." He stressed that many hunters invested as much as $500 to pay for guides, food, transportation and equipment just for the chance to hunt bear in the state, making the law requiring extermination for offending bears seem counterproductive and a waste of time. Besides these reasons, Laramie opposes this law because bears receive credit for some killings they did not commit. He pointed out that dogs, coyotes and sometimes people do work blamed on the bears. "Yes, we have rustlers in New Hampshire. To the untrained eye, they make their work look like the attack of a wild animal, but the bear is assumed to be the culprit."

By nature, the bear is an extremely shy and wary animal but it has adapted well to the food sources provided by humans. Laramie recommended several ways to cut down on friction with the bears, friction which usually results from a bear's quest for nourishment. "If a bear begins to bang on your garbage cans at night, you should empty them every day and clean them out. Better yet, get rid of the garbage can completely, but don't stick it in the shed. The bear will smell it and go after it in a not-too-gentle manner, breaking through screens and doors without much effort." This same advice holds for campers. "When campers take food into their tent, they are inviting trouble. Bears are more than capable of ripping through a tent wall to retrieve a meal. Locking food inside a cooler in the car trunk or stringing it high in a tree seem to be the best solutions."

Sighting a bear should be no reason to panic, according to Laramie. On the contrary, he calls this a "rare opportunity." Although bears have keen sense of smell and hearing, their eyesight is poor and many people have reported that bears actually moved toward them at close quarters. To warn a bear of your presence, Laramie suggests waving hands and shouting, tactics which almost always compel the bear to turn and run. In the remote chance that a bear harasses you, Laramie recommends climbing a small tree up and out of the reach of the animal. Still, bears only attack when provoked and given no opportunity to flee; no wild black bear had ever killed or seriously injured anyone in New Hampshire.

"If you do happen upon a bear," Laramie advised, "remember that you're very lucky just to see one. You should keep quiet and watch the bear for as long as you can. Enjoy it."

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