ďGuess Whoís Coming to DinnerĒ Ė (Dealing with Problem Black Bears)
With the onset of summer and fall, we will once again see an increase in the number of bear problems for homeowners in the Hudson Valley. Over the last few decades, the black bear population has increased in our region, and bear/human conflicts have become more common as the human population expands into rural areas. Currently the Southeastern NY black bear population is at an all-time high based upon known historical records of their distribution and abundance.
While most of a black bearís diet consists of vegetation, they will readily investigate and consume anything that might smell palatable to them. Research in New york has documented that black bears will consume over 80 species of native vegetation. They will also investigate anything that remotely smells edible, including some things such as soiled baby diapers and fecal matter.
With the mating season winding down in late July, they will soon begin to seek out any and all food sources during their waking hours. Their sense of smell is their primary method of locating food. Just about everything that we donít eat and/or don't properly dispose of will catch the attention of a bear as a potential meal. Some researchers have speculated that a bearís sense of smell is as much as 50 times greater than that of humans. The great majority of problems that people have with bears involves a short list of activities that can quickly escalate to more annoying circumstances with uninvited bears. Unsecured garbage, bird feeders (including humming bird feeders), outside feeding of pets, compost piles, bee apiaries and outdoor grills are all on their short list of potential foods. Their eating binge peaks in early fall during which time bears can gain as much as two pounds of body weight per day.
Prevention is the key if you live in bear country and/or have experienced bears in your area. It is much easier to prevent bears from becoming a nuisance than it is repell them once they have targeted a food source. Once bears successfully discover a location with a source of food, they will continue to visit that location until the food attraction is gone. A black bear's sense of smell enables them to detect things that are scentless to the human nose. Even something as benign as bird seed is a strong attraction for bears. For an expanded general commentary about nuisance black bears in New York see: //www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/livingwithbears.pdf
So, what is the best way to deal with a bear who has learned to associate food with human dwellings ? Assuming that you have put forth reasonable efforts to not have any food attractions around that will attract bears around your home, they may continue to show up at your property, especially if they have scored food in seasons past. Black bears learn by association and have an uncanny ability to remember where they have found a meal. If you have removed all the attractants and a bear or bears still show up in spite of your efforts to bear-proof your property, the issue then becomes an effort of deterring them and prevent further depredations.
Here are some techniques (in order of their simplicity and ruthlessness) to discourage back yard bears:
- Full strength ammonia is a strong obnoxious smell to our nostrils and it will really wreck havoc with the bearís remarkable olfactory system. Try using a cup or more of ammonia in a zip-loc bag or small container and place it on top of your garbage can, garbage storage unit or on your compost pile. You want them to break the bag or knock over the can so that the bear get the full dose of the ammonia fumes, and quickly decide that whatever you have is not worth the frontal assault on their nostrils. The downside is that you have to keep replacing or replenishing the ammonia, especially if you have multiple bears.
Low Key Noise Devices
- Some people suffering from bear depredations have had success with a small radio, set to a talk or music station, and while it can be effective in deterring bears, it does have limitations. Batteries run out and unless they are heavily protected from the elements, there is always the danger of water damage and shorting out of the equipment. It works best on transient bears in the spring and early summer. Resident bears can become accustomed to the noise of the radio.
High Tech Noise Devices
- A device called a "Critter-Gitter" that has been around for more than a decade has had considerable success in many nuisance bear situations. It is a device that has both motion and infrared detection capabilities and emits a loud, variable pitch wailing sound complete with flashing red lights. The range of detection is about 25 feet, and it covers about a 45 degree arc. Critter Gitterís are easy to set up and have a better track record than other noise devices. Do a Google search for Critter Gitters and donít pay over $40 for one. The downside is that they will also wake you up and sometimes require water proofing around the battery compartment with electricians tape if really heavy rains are expected.
- A device that consists of a small baited metal barrel. When a bear sticks his head into the barrel and the bait is disturbed, a charge of bear deterrent pepper gas is sprayed directly into the bearís face, eyes and mouth. It is not permanently debilitating, but is strong enough and sufficiently intense enough to cause avoidance of your food attraction by that bear in the future. DEC purchased a number of these during the last decade, however they were not cheap and only limited numbers were bought. Some offices may or may not still have some Bear- Be- Gones available for loan.
Non Lethal Rubber Buckshot and other Shotshell Pyrotechnics
- Rubber buckshot has been used in many situations where bears have become persistent in their food search. As mentioned earlier, bears learn by association and they quickly associate your food source with the sharp, stinging pain of nonlethal buckshot applied to their rump. Rubber buckshot does not break the skin, but can result in bruising and will quickly cause them to associate site-specific pain with your food attraction. It is available only as 12 gauge shotshells. In addition to rubber buckshot, there are also other shotgun shells designed to protect agricultural crops. They are appropriately called "bangers" and "screamers" and will add another dimension to the negative, nonlethal buckshot conditioning. Rubber buckshot shotshells used in tandem with pyrotechnics have been effective in discouraging further visits from the bear(s). Use of nonlethal shot to deter bears requires a free Nuisance Permit from Regional DEC Wildlife Unit.
For larger attractions such as apiaries or dumpsters, electrified livestock fencing can be an effective exclusion device for bears. Temporary metal post set-ups or permanent wood posts, at least 4 feet high, will offer substantial protection from raiding bears. The currently available compact, battery powered high voltage chargers offer about the best solution for long term protection. While there is an initial expense for procurement and set up of the materials, electric fencing offers the highest level of protection for high value bear targets. As an extra, tie knots of bacon onto the hot wires or adding a grid around the perimeter enhances the probability of curiuous bears being zapped with enough current that they won't forget. Routine maintance is required to insure that weeds don't short out wires and voltage levels are maintained. There are numerous references available for constructiong bear-proof electric fences available from DEC and online.
Trap and Transfer
- Trapping and transferring bears to another location was commonly done back in the 1960's and 70's when bear numbers were much lower and nuisance bear problems were less common. However, this alternative is currently not used very often because it completely disregards the black bearís strong homing ability, which is still not completely understood. Black bears have an extremely well developed navigation and homing ability that renders most trapping and relocation efforts useless. It is unknown if bears use celestial and /or solar navigation, air currents or some other innate homing instinct, but in most circumstances they can and will return to the location of their capture. As a case in point, I once captured and moved a sow with three young of the year cubs from Boiceville to a location on the Delaware River bordering Pennsylvania, only to have the entire family group return to the exact same site in Boiceville in 8 days. Moving a bear to another spot is generally a temporary solution at best.
The exception to this axiom is yearling male bears who wander aimlessly in the spring and early summer because they have been driven away by their mother as she approaches estrus and another breeding season. They are already wanderers, seeking a new territory of their own. Because yearling males are already in a wandering mode, they lack fidelity to the home range where they spent the first year of their life. Relocation in these instances is merely a temporary setback in the young bearís quest for a home range.
Home Entry Bears
Any discussion of nuisance bears also must include the more recent phenomena of "home entry bears" that have learned to break into human dwellings in search of food. Bear damage during break-in and while inside the house can be extremely destructive. As the black bear population expanded in southeastern NY in the 1990's, the incidence of home entry bears has risen significantly. Experience has shown that once a bear learns of the bounty of food that exists in human dwellings, especially kitchens, they will continue to replicate this behavior inspite of hard core efforts to retrain them. As a result, in most all cases, the offending home entry bear will be captured and euthanized.
In summary, it is far better to prevent food-seeking bears by maintaining the area around your home free of bear attractants. Bears eat to live and live to eat, and if your property has no food sources to attract them they will readily do little more than a pass-through of your land. Most of the time, bear problems can be mitigated with some combination of the techniques suggested above. You should always contact the Regional DEC Wildlife Office to report your problem. And please feel free to send me a personal message or post a question on this blog if you can't reach authorities in a timely manner and need immediate guidance in resolving uninvited visits from your local bears.
The majority of the problems that we humans have with black bears around our homes can be prevented or mitigated with with direct measures and persistence. In most all cases, if you remove the food source, you will also remove the bear(s).
Most of us have heard the timeless saying from the old Yogi Bear cartoons :
"You just have to be smarter than the average bear".