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We need to be smart about bears

The aftermath of a bear encounter at the Calamity Brook lean-to is a mess of torn food packaging and destroyed gear. The state Department of Environmental Conservation says the hikers got away safely but that the bear destroyed their food supply after it approached them while they cooked and transferred food in their bear canister. DEC says that was not proper bear canister use. (Provided photo — state Department of Environmental Conservation)

During any given week on trails in the Adirondacks, you hear a lot of people bring up bears. From what I’ve heard in parking lots, seen in trail logs and read in lean-to notebooks, it would seem that they are a constant menace, ruthlessly harassing hikers and stealing their food with great malice. With the news of last week’s nuisance-bear euthanization by the DEC, even the shores of Mirror Lake beach are buzzing with well-appointed beachgoers talking about bears.

For everyone who spends time in the Adirondack backcountry, it is critically important that we keep bear safety in mind when we go recreate in wild places (particularly overnight). By “bear safety,” however, I do primarily mean keeping bears safe from people.

Every year, bears are “removed from the population” here because of their interactions with people. These interactions turn from benign to frightening and aggressive over time for each effected bear because of our decisions and our behaviors. Misconceptions about bears lead to undue fear and carelessness with our food allows them to become habituated to our presence, creating a combination that is mostly inconvenient for hikers but deadly for bears.

Here in the Adirondacks, the only bears we see are black bears. Despite their size, their interest in our food and their capacity for aggressive behavior, black bears actually pose very little danger to people. I couldn’t count the amount of times I’ve head people bring up “that guy in Alaska who lived with bears until they killed him” or “that college student in New Jersey who was stalked and killed by a bear.” This serves as a valuable indicator, though. In the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with people about bears, these two examples of deadly bear encounters tend to be the only ones most people have heard of. That is because attacks by black bears are incredibly rare events. Despite this fact, bears persist in the common imagination as a looming menace, waiting to prey on all campers.

There are other examples of negative bear-human interactions, of course. In the last decade, there have been fewer than 10 fatalities in North America involving black bears in the wild. Only one of these occurred on the eastern seaboard (the aforementioned incident in New Jersey). There have been a hand-countable number of bear-related injuries in New York in the same period of time, with no fatalities. In fact, there has only been one recorded wild-bear-related fatality in New York in the past century. Most of the time, bears that cause a nuisance do it while people aren’t even around. They break into tents, rummage for food left in backpacks and coat pockets, and go on their way. In rare cases, they will hang around, but this is usually because they learn that many humans aren’t dangerous and some will even willingly offer them food if they stick close by.

The reasons for this are purely survival-based. Bears, especially in the High Peaks, rely on a limited variety of natural foods to keep them alive. They are incredibly intelligent animals, naturally inquisitive and great at problem solving. If you want proof of this fact, search “Yellow-Yellow bear” on the internet. Bears exist mostly on a diet of plant material, berries and bugs (despite conjured images of them as primarily predatory). The food we carry into the woods often contains an incredible density of nutrients they need to live. Fats and sugars that are hard to come by in roots and insects are very alluring to them, as they provide more sustenance for less work. As such, they try to find ways to get at it.

These bears have no interest in harming you. In fact, they would certainly rather avoid you at all costs. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, bears do not want to fight or attack people. That would be a horrible waste of precious calories and would put them at risk of suffering an injury that could lead to infection and death. But when they learn that, by bluff-charging (at worst) or even just appearing in a campsite, people will run off and leave tasty treats for them, they continue to do so. This behavior can amplify over the course of years, as they are smart enough to remember exactly where and how they were able to get food in the past. For many bears, this just means pushing over a bear canister to discover that its owner never locked the lid (an incredibly common occurrence, unfortunately). Adirondack bears have also proven their ability to disable bear hangs and get at the food inside, so even if you think your bear-hang skills are exceptional, know that a bear can and will outsmart you if it wants to.

The DEC keeps close tabs on bears that have become accustomed to this kind of behavior, and sadly, it is often a slippery slope. Once bears learn that they can easily bully or snoop their way into a free meal just by showing up, they continue to do so. This is doubly true of bears that develop a taste for human food from our trash cans, dumpsters or even the hands of people who choose to feed them for whatever reason. Once bears start to become a nuisance to people, they get noticed. From there, it’s a short trip from tagging to rubber buckshot and, ultimately, euthanization if they don’t change their ways. Despite the best effort of the DEC, correcting bear behavior after they’ve already become a nuisance can only be successful if hikers support it by making food hard to access.

The bear that was recently killed had been building its aggressive tendencies over time, and this year’s dry summer, with its comparative lack of edible plant material, likely led it to double down on this behavior and to rely more specifically on human food. While it’s easy to be distracted by the aggression it showed to some hikers, it’s important to remember that it was just trying to survive as best it could based on what it had learned. Ultimately, bears can’t be faulted for trying to get nutrient-dense food from hikers. They don’t have houses or hotels to return to, cash to buy a nice meal, or the foresight to understand that they are setting themselves up to be killed.

All of this having been said, being concerned about bear interactions while hiking is entirely understandable. Many people have never run into an animal in the wild that weighs twice to four times what they do and can, if provoked, be dangerous to humans. For many people, though, especially those who have never had bear encounters, fear of bears represents a fear of the unknown more than anything else. Unfortunately, because of the few bad examples that echo around the hiking community, bears come to be painted as an enemy.

Ultimately, we should be working to help protect these beautiful animals from their own curiosity. The forests that we choose to recreate in are their full-time homes. Keeping them safe is often as simple as using a bear canister when you’re in the woods. Since the DEC mandated the use of bear canisters in 2005, bear-related incidents in the High Peaks region have dropped precipitously. Especially in their modern form, bear canisters are an exceptionally effective deterrent for bears. Bears are smart enough to quickly learn that they won’t be able to get the food inside if the canister is properly used. If you are worried about a bear encounter, learning what to do if a bear becomes aggressive or persistent is important.

But rather than strictly emphasize the dangers they pose, we should all take the time to educate ourselves about the animals themselves. That way, we can keep the hiking community safe and informed, and the bears healthy and alive.

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