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How to Be Good Visitors in Bear Habitat

How to Be Good Visitors in Bear Habitat

The following appeared in the 2021 Mar/Apr issue of Adirondac Magazine

By Bobby Clark

There is a common saying among outdoor recreators: “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Studies suggest it takes only three instances of a black bear ­obtaining human food before it starts to change its behavior. This often leads to more aggressive behavior toward humans, which can include hissing, charging, or being unfazed by noise, the usual scare tactic.

In these situations, local land managers will do their best to scare the bears away through various stages of hazing. This was tried last July in the High Peaks Wilderness. Unfortunately,  after a month-long escalation in aggressive behavior, a bear was ­euthanized by state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) staff at Marcy Dam. The bear had been tearing into tents and bluff-charging hikers, activities that were caused by avoidable human behavior.

When recreating in black bear habitat, the first thing to remember is that we are the visitors and must be mindful of our impacts. One of the best ways to prevent negative human–­black bear interactions when recreating is proper storage of food and other scented items. While out on the trail, keep your backpack with you at all times. Avoid leaving it unattended, especially when going off trail for even a moment. Black bears are very curious, intelligent, opportunistic animals that will take advantage of any chance they get to take your food and even the backpack that holds it. Despite their cleverness, black bears can’t use zippers, so they may also create a new opening in your pack to get at your lunch.

DEC wildlife biologists estimate that there are currently 6000–8000 black bears living in New York State, 50–60 percent of which live within the Adirondack Park. Because black bears are mainly active around dawn and dusk, they are most commonly encountered by campers. Before your next camping trip, research local rules and regulations and come equipped with the gear for a proper bear hang or a bear-resistant food canister. Keep in mind that bear hangs are not acceptable everywhere in the Adirondacks and not all bear canisters work. I always encourage campers to use bear canisters, regardless of whether they’re required, because they are much easier to use than bear hangs—and make a great camp stool.

Additionally, it is important to keep a clean camp and only have out the food you need while keeping the rest of it stored securely. Another way to avoid negative human–­black bear interactions is to make sure you are cooking far enough away from camp. We recommend cooking the same 200 feet from camp as you are storing your food so bears aren’t lured into the area where you want to get a good night’s sleep.

Starting in 2004, DEC began requiring commercially manufactured bear-resistant food canisters for all overnight users in the Central High Peaks Wilderness. The result is a true success story, with numbers showing a steep decline in negative human–black bear interactions in the years immediately following implementation of the regulation. Despite this, we still have a lot of work to do balancing recreation opportunities with the health of wildlife throughout the Adirondack Park.

A major challenge to maintaining this balance is a regular influx of new recreators who often come equipped with great enthusiasm but sometimes lack the knowledge to minimize their impacts. Through volunteer- and staff-led efforts, ADK is making a difference with a boots-on-the-ground education approach. At the Heart Lake Program Center, High Peaks Information Center [and Cascade Welcome Center] staff, and ADK Trailhead Stewardship Program volunteers are always ready to help you have a safe and enjoyable experience outdoors. In order to build a world that is in balance with nature, we need to provide education that is rooted in nature.


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