JOHNSTOWN -- A bear sighting in Franklin Park in June prompted safety-conscious school administrators to keep students indoors temporarily. A late-night sighting the same month in South Park stirred the local rumor mill for weeks, and in July an errant black bear spotted in a West Deer neighborhood became a public spectacle.
The state's black bear population has quadrupled since the early 1980s, but biologists say the arrival of bears in urban and suburban areas is cause for study, not alarm.
"Generally, [bears are] just not that big of a deal," said Mark Ternent, a biologist and bear specialist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "Somewhere in the state there's a bear in somebody's backyard every day."
Last week, as part of a Game Commission study of bears in human population centers, Mr. Ternent led a team of biologists and wildlife law enforcement officers to a brushy hillside outside of Johnstown. Nearly within sight of a small community in Richland, Cambria County, a black bear sow had built a den and given birth to three cubs.
Nearby residents were unaware of the new neighbors, Mr. Ternent said, but that's not unusual.
The Game Commission den visit was part of a three-year study of the habits of suburban and urban bears. Fifty bears living near Johnstown, State College and Scranton have been or will soon be fitted with radio telemetry collars that send periodic text messages to Mr. Ternent. The goal is to learn more about bears that live near humans, including den selection and reproductive success, and help the state develop management policies and educational strategies that reduce negative contacts between people and bears.
The only bear species living wild in Pennsylvania, black bears are normally extremely shy and wary of humans. Ursus americanus isn't always black -- colors can range to cinnamon or blonde, and some have a white "V" on the chest. They climb trees, swim and run up to 35 mph for short distances. Adult females weigh about 200 pounds; males can grow to three times that or more. Black bears will eat anything -- berries, fruit, acorns, grass, carrion, corn and other agricultural products, and small animals when they can catch them -- but they have a troublesome taste for bird seed and trash can contents, especially sweets. They can live up to 25 years.
As the bears' range creeps south in the state, some 1,200 bear-related complaints are filed each year. Yet since 2000, fewer than 25 bear-related injuries have been reported in Pennsylvania, and no one has been killed by a bear in Pennsylvania since officials started keeping records around 1900.
"We have 12 million people in Pennsylvania and 18,000 bears interacting every day, and very few injuries resulting from that," said Mr. Ternent.
Yet a 2008 study by Responsive Management, a nonprofit polling group dealing in hunting and fishing issues, found that many Pennsylvanians are uncomfortable about bears. Of those polled, 24 percent do not want bears in their yard but are OK with having them in their township. Forty percent say they want black bears in their county but not in their township or city, and 21 percent are uncomfortable having black bears roaming wild anywhere in their county.
The study will provide more information about the habits of urban/suburban bears.
"What we're learning is the movement of these bears," said Mr. Ternent. "Do they spend their lives in those areas? Do they spend part of their lives outside of those areas in more rural settings? Just what do these bears do?"
The sow involved in the Johnstown research was initially trapped by wildlife officials in June 2010. She was anesthetized, and a back tooth was removed to determine her age (that report isn't in yet). She was collared and released.
Last week, GPS coordinates led the team to her den, a sparse roofless space under a loose pile of rotting logs surrounded by dense saplings and brush. Bears slip in and out of sleep during hibernation -- this one was sitting up nursing three cubs when a member of the research team shot her with a dart gun.
The anesthesia took effect almost immediately, which Mr. Ternent said was unusual. Crying loudly, the cubs -- two females and a male -- were carried to a nearby clearing where they were examined, weighed and fitted with permanent ear tags for future identification. Fuzzy balls of fur about 2 months old, each weighed 7 to 10 pounds. When held by the researchers, the cubs used their 1-inch claws to climb up a shoulder or buried themselves snugly under a jacket.
Back at the den, Mama Bear was cared for like a surgical patient. She was given oxygen, her heart and respiration rates were monitored with a stethoscope, and her blood was checked to ensure she was coping with the anesthesia. Estimated to weigh about 230 pounds, she was rated in better-than-average shape for a sow who hadn't eaten since mid-November, bore a litter and was producing milk for daily nursing since the second week of January.
Near the den, a technician checked the old radio collar and prepared a new one that would be fitted to her neck before the anesthesia wore off. The team had 20 minutes.
"Time is important here. We have to get all of this done before she comes out of it," said Mr. Ternent, straddling the mother in the den. "There's some danger to us, of course, but if she wakes up too soon she might run off and abandon the cubs."
Scientists know a lot about black bears. In Pennsylvania, they start breeding earlier than almost anywhere in North America, at age 3 to 4. Bears mate in June and July, but in an unusual process called "delayed implantation" the embryo floats freely until October or November, when it attaches to the uterine wall. In mid-January cubs are born blind and nearly furless in litters of one to five. First-year survival is estimated at 80 percent. By mid-November, the cubs stand 15-20 inches at the shoulder and average 80 pounds, with some as heavy as 140 pounds.
About 23 percent of the male bear population and 16 percent of the females are removed annually by hunting (2 to 4 percent are killed by vehicles), yet bears are thriving. For three years, the population has held steady at about 18,000. The Game Commission's 10-year management plan for 2006-2015, written by Mr. Ternent, notes that, "today bears are more abundant than at any other time since European settlement, and about four times more abundant than 25 years ago when the trend began."
The joint Pennsylvania, New Jersey and West Virginia research into the habits of suburban and urban bears isn't unique, but it's believed to be the largest study of its kind.
"Black bears are very, very tolerant and very flexible in their approach to life. They're curious, smarter than the average dog, have memories you can't believe, and there's no getting around living with them," said Chris Morgan, a Seattle-based wildlife conservationist, bear ecologist and author of the newly published "Bears of the Last Frontier" (Abrams). A television documentary series based on the book will air on PBS on consecutive Sundays beginning May 8.
Mr. Morgan, who isn't involved in the Pennsylvania study, said studies such as this one are important because more must be learned about the black bears that live near people. Habituated bears are often the first to be killed by hunters and motor vehicles.
Most bear complaints involve backyard sightings and overturned garbage cans. The Game Commission advises that when in bear country, which now exceeds 55 counties in Pennsylvania, make noise to frighten the animals. If you see a bear, don't approach it. If it's approaching you, don't make eye contact or sudden movements. Back away slowly and try to make yourself seem larger by raising your arms or spreading your coat. If it charges, hold your ground -- false attacks are common, and running will prompt a chase that you are bound to lose.
When attacks occur, they are generally very brief, and injuries can include scratches and bites. Fight back, don't play dead. Unlike other North American bears, black bears don't consider people to be food. When it realizes what you are, or gets a painful punch in the face, it's likely to go away.
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, firstname.lastname@example.org .