Saranac Lake area resident Milt Adams was camping at the Old Forge Camping Resort recently when he awoke and heard an animal outside his tent. It sounded to him like a black bear.
A minute later Adams and his wife heard the sound of a car door opening, then some rustling inside it.
"We could hear the bags of chips being opened up and eaten and licked clean," said Adams, who was leading a local Cub Scout pack on an outing that also included some of his family members.
(Photo — Peupleloup)
The bear then exited the car and began walking away. That's when it ran into Milt's 15-year-old son Matthew, who had been sleeping in a small, one-person tent.
"I heard this ... deep panting, almost like a growl," Matthew said. "It was a couple of inches from my face on the other side of the tent."
About that same time, Adams' son felt his tent compress on his feet and ankles. The bear, perhaps having tripped over the tent, laid down on Matthew's legs.
"It felt like a very large dog," he said. "It was pretty heavy, but it wasn't 300 pounds or anything."
It's been that kind of year - one when bears and people have been crossing paths more than is normal, especially in the Old Forge region and some areas of the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness.
State Department of Environmental Conservation Region 6 wildlife biologist Steven Heerkens said his region has received more than 100 reports of nuisance bears in 2012. Last year, a very slow time for bear-related complaints, there were about 15, he said.
"This is the busiest year, the most active year, since the late '90s," Heerkens said.
Heerkens has had to respond to reports of Adirondack bears breaking into homes, harassing campers and even one that tried to force its way into a candy store in Old Forge.
"This animal wasn't even trying to get into a window," Heerkens said. "It was literally wanting to take the whole wall out to get in."
The more serious complaints have led to dire consequences for bears. Seven of them were killed by the DEC's Region 6 because of their actions, including six this summer, all in the Old Forge region.
"It's the most we've ever put down in the region," Heerkens said. "That isn't something obviously we're looking to do, but there's time where the behavior is just elevated enough where it's just unacceptable."
In DEC Region 5, which encompasses the northern and eastern parts of the Adirondacks, there haven't been as many bear-related complaints, but there have still been some serious issues. Region 5 Wildlife Manager Lance Durfey said six nuisance bears have been killed by either DEC staff, homeowners or farmers.
That includes one bear that broke into a man's home in Chestertown in late July. During that incident, the bear and homeowner got into a tug of war over the garbage.
"It was going after his trash, and it's my understanding that he actually grabbed the garbage away from the bear and the animal slowly exited the building," Durfey said. "That's certainly nothing that we would recommend that people do, but whether he wasn't fully awake or what. I don't really know."
The DEC later trapped and killed the bear.
In another incident, a bear was shot and killed by a forest ranger at the Limekiln Lake State Campground in Inlet. The bear was exiting a building when it was shot, Durfey said. This one had been reportedly causing a lot of property damage at the campground.
"The bear was breaking into camping trailers," Durfey said. "It actually bit into a camping trailer tire and caused a flat."
So far, the DEC hasn't reported euthanizing any bears in the Adirondack backcountry, although many campers and hikers have reported having encounters with them in the Marcy Dam and Lake Colden area of the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness.
Michelle Minnoe, information coordinator at the High Peaks Information Center, said she's had "a lot of reports of people running into bears, even in the early afternoon hours."
In addition, one bear recently broke into a car parked at the Adirondack Mountain Club's Adirondak Loj campground a little less than two weeks ago.
"I believe it broke a window and chewed up a head rest," Durfey said.
None of the incidents resulted in injuries to people, according to the DEC.
Why so many incidents?
There are a number of factors that have led to so many bear-related incidents this summer. One that has been well documented is that their food sources - green vegetation and berries - have been in short supply this summer because of the dry weather. Biologists have also speculated that the population seems to be high this year.
Stacy McNulty, associate director and research associate at the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb, said that last year there was an abundance of food for bears, especially beech nuts. That meant female bears were able to find enough nourishment to successfully reproduce.
If that theory is correct, there were a lot of young bears that came out of their dens this spring with their mothers.
"We were already set up to have a bad bear year in terms of bears being born and getting out of the den and trying to find a new place to live," McNulty said. "The fact that it's been a dry summer and kind of tough for the bears to find food has made that worse."
There are other reasons for the high number of bear complaints. A big one is the human element. In Old Forge, wildlife managers and biologists believe people are a big part of the problem.
"Old Forge has a tradition of feeding wildlife," Heerkens said. "People have been feeding deer or were openly feeding deer for decades in that community. So between deer and bear feeding, people go up there with the mind-set of driving around and waiting to hand-feed a deer from the vehicle. And then when they go camping, there are folks that go up there specifically to put out food to attract a bear."
Heerkens did say that the town board of Webb, which includes Old Forge, has been actively trying to solve the problem by doing things such as putting information about bears on the town website. He also worked with the state Department of Transportation to put up a large roadside sign on state Route 28 near Old Forge that states, "Illegal to feed bear/deer."
According to biologists, once a bear gets a taste for human food, whether it's from a marshmallow at a campground or garbage at a camp, it often will continue to seek out this type of food source.
"Bears will definitely take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself, and they gradually become habituated," Durfey said. "Typically, these home entry bears, this is not sort of a spontaneous behavior that all of the sudden presents itself. Almost 100 percent of the time, this is a learned behavior and the bears become habituated to people and generally trained to think of people and people's homes as a food source. It's not something that just happens.
"In New York, bears are instinctively afraid of people, and they tend to be quite timid. It's things like bird feeders and garbage tends to be the ... gateway drug, so to speak. Things progress from there. In addition, we still even have people deliberately feeding bears."