Bear Forecast 2004

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TOMORROW'S BEAR FORECAST? Sunny with little chance of rain. In other words, continued growing populations and predicted good hunting. Yes, black bears are doing just fine, especially in rural areas where growing bear numbers are welcome. Bears bring millions of hunters' dollars to rural communities.

But in areas with high human populations, the forecast calls for rain. When bears move into the outskirts of towns, they predictably have serious interactions with humans. Thus, in such areas bears are managed to meet the socially acceptable carrying capacity. In New Jersey, for example, the human population is around 1,000 people per square mile. Even so, especially in New Jersey's farm country, bear numbers have grown and spread, leading to human/bear conflicts. Two years ago this growth led to a proposed bear hunting season. That proposal died because of strong opposition from animal rightists. The result? Bears continued to move from their traditional habitat, and confrontations grew. In fact, from January to September 2002, the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game, and Wildlife received 800 phone calls concerning bears considered a high risk to humans and property.

The Humane Society says that hunting won't reduce such conflicts. The state Sierra Club calls for more research. Both are ducking the obvious. A hunting season would allow management of the bears. Similar battles have been waged in other states, and they will continue.

What is the major cause for human/bear conflicts? Feeding. People like to see bears, and creating feed stations in backyards has become a popular suburban activity in many areas. Such feeding can only hurt bears. Once bears get conditioned to a human environment where food is easily accessible, they're doomed because they lose their fear of people. Mark Ternent, Pennsylvania Game Commission bear biologist, says that citizens "need to understand that habituating bears to humans can lead to conflicts and the potential for serious injury." Some bears will even break into houses looking for food. Obviously, when this happens the bears must be removed or killed.

In Oregon, where bear hunting with dogs and bait were made illegal (thus reducing fear of man), problems have occurred that have led to recent passage of a law to help protect humans against aggressive bears. And, as this forecast is being written (late November '02), the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners may prohibit the intentional feeding of bears. They cite national statistics that show that 90 percent of the 500 people injured by bears between 1960 and 1980 were hurt by bears conditioned to feeding. Over the next 20 years, bear feeding and the encroachment of humans into bear ranges will be a major problem faced by wildlife managers -- and bears. That problem will be further exacerbated by any loss of bear hunting seasons and management.

As you look at this forecast, remember that some seasons were not set by press time. Go to state and provincial wildlife agency web sites to confirm season dates and other regulations. As always, I want to thank state and provincial bear biologists who provided the information for this forecast and who use good science to manage our bear populations.

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