Black bear sightings in Pennsylvania becoming more frequent

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Joseph Stepko
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is averaging two to three complaints a day from residents reporting bears roaming through their back yards, tearing through their garbage, or eating from their bird feeders.
Click photo for larger image.

FARMINGTON, Pa. -- Retired truck driver Jim Chaisson had just turned on the coffee maker one recent morning when he heard a strange sound coming from outside the motor home he shares with his wife, Jimmie, a retired nurse, on the grounds of the Fort Necessity National Battlefield in southern Fayette County.

A young, 200-pound black bear was outside, wrestling with the 4-inch sewer hose coming from the RV, trying to root out the food scraps inside.

Mr. Chaisson, of Greeley, Colo., a temporary volunteer at Fort Necessity, screamed and hollered at the bear, pounding on the side of the motor home to get it to go away.

"It didn't do anything," said Mr. Chaisson. "It just looked at us as if to say, 'You're infringing on my territory.' It was not afraid of us. It really did not want to leave, but I was just enough of an irritant to him."

The bear then lay down underneath a nearby tree for a while, before finally ambling off into the woods.

It was the bear's second visit to the RV, but Mr. Chaisson's first face-to-face encounter with one. Bears are a rare sight around Greeley, he said.

Not so in Fayette County, where bear sightings are on the rise lately, along with bear nuisance complaints and motor vehicle accidents involving bears. Along U.S. Route 40, four black bears were struck and killed in as many weeks.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is averaging two to three complaints a day from residents reporting bears roaming through their back yards, tearing through their garbage, or eating from their bird feeders.

Joseph Stepko
Pennsylvania's black bears are reproducing at a younger age and having larger litters of cubs than anywhere else in the United States.
Click photo for larger image.

In fact, the bear population is increasing, officials say. Pennsylvania's black bears are reproducing at a younger age and having larger litters of cubs than anywhere else in the United States. With the recent mild winters and ample food supplies, the males aren't truly hibernating, and are naturally dispersing into areas where they haven't traditionally roamed before.

But that's not really the problem. More people are moving into the mountains of southern Fayette County and building homes in bear habitat, and many don't know how to co-exist alongside bears. They put out bird feeders in the summer, which game officials call "bear lollipops." They leave garbage or pet food outside, then panic when they see a furry intruder roaming through their yards, making their dogs bark.

"People buy a pristine piece of mountain property, clear out an acre, and it might be right in the middle of the bear's living room," said Joe Stefko, wildlife education supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "A lot of our work is educating people on how to live with them."

Local wineries have deposited their mash in garbage bins; groups host chicken fries and rib fries, leaving their trash to attract bears, whose noses are 40 times more sensitive than humans'. Rather than euthanize the "nuisance," wildlife conservation officers have trapped and relocated more than a dozen bears this year, baiting them with stale Krispy Kreme doughnuts and transporting them across drainage systems and highways, taking them to state game lands far from population centers. Sometimes, even the bears who have been trapped before come back.

Lately, the officers have been going through about 2,000 Krispy Kremes every two weeks, said Frank Maykuth of Masontown, a deputy wildlife conservation officer with the game commission.

"It's not a bear problem, it's a human problem," said Mr. Maykuth. "We're kind of living on borrowed time, because we've never had a mauling in the history of Western Pennsylvania, that we have records of. But it's not going to be long before we have a human-bear conflict."

Nemacolin Woodlands has helped spur housing construction in once-wild, wooded areas such as Markleysburg, said Mr. Maykuth, and the black bear population is starting to feel the pressure from all the humans moving in.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield, a trash-free park, has had some problems this year with a small male "nuisance bear," said Maryellen Snyder, chief of visitor services. When young bears are newly separated from their mothers, she said, they are trying to figure out how to get food, so they go to the smells that attract them.

"We know there's bears in the area, and we take precautions to limit any human-bear interactions," said Ms. Snyder. "People want to see the bears, but they're not sure how to interact with them."

Visitors to the campgrounds at Ohiopyle State Park were delighted to see a "cute little bear" nosing around the trash bins, said Mr. Maykuth. "People loved it."

But there is danger in that familiarity. Once a bear locates easily accessible food, it overcomes its wariness of people, and keeps coming back, "like a stray dog," said Mr. Stefko.

Black bears are omnivores, and are always on the move because of their seasonal eating habits. In the early spring, after hibernation, they gorge themselves on wetland plants like skunk cabbage and grasses, said Mr. Stefko. Then they move onto tearing apart stumps for insects, before feeding heavily on berries in early summer.

When mating season peaks in June and July, he said, "they're naturally crossing highways, and they don't win the battle with a vehicle."

According to the state police, no humans were injured in the slew of mid-summer collisions with black bears along Route 40.

In August, bears start raiding area cornfields, which causes local farmers much consternation. The bears trample down a large circle of corn, sit down and eat.

"This is our big problem time," said Mr. Maykuth. "Right now, the farmers' corn crops are getting into the milk stage, and the young males gorge themselves and get thirsty and go looking for water."

But for most locals, bears are simply a fact of life. Wharton Township Supervisor Jim Means of Chalk Hill, who was out mowing the roadsides last week, thinks it's still a rare treat to see a bear. He was born and raised in the area, and has only seen a wild bear about three times in his life.

"A lot of people just don't really understand the wildlife," he said. "The mountains are growing now, people's coming from Pittsburgh way, Maryland way. People put the bird feeders out n' at; it's a free meal, you can't blame the bear for eating."

Game commission officials recommend storing garbage inside a garage or shed, regularly cleaning out garbage cans with hot water and bleach, and bringing pets' food pans inside every night. Bears are also attracted to compost piles, greasy barbecue grills and beehives.

Jill Herring, co-owner of the Woodland Zoo in Farmington with her husband, Sonny, recently saw a black bear outside her home, and captured its grainy image with her camera cell phone. The zoo has had black bears in captivity for 17 years, but that was her first sighting of a wild bear.

"You hate to say it's stupidity on people's part, but bears are opportunists -- if they find something that's easy, they'll take advantage of it, and on a continual basis, until the person is smart enough to pack the feed away," said Mrs. Herring, who has lived in the area her entire life. "We're surrounded by 800 acres of woods; that's where they live. People want to get away from the city life, but don't want to accept what's in the country."

Not all southern Fayette County residents are used to living with bears, however. Ashley Hager of Farmington, a front-desk receptionist at the Summit Inn, has had two encounters with bears recently. One came three weeks ago, as she and her mother were driving from Uniontown into Chalk Hill.

"There was a car in front of us, and all of a sudden, we saw this big, black thing coming, running out across the road," said Ms. Hager, 18, who just graduated from Uniontown High School. "The car in the oncoming lane swerved to avoid hitting the bear and lost control; it did a 180 and ran into the bank."

Her friends have reported seeing bears in their back yards and on their porches, an experience she wants no part of.

"I've seen shows and stuff and they talk about what they can do," said Ms. Hager. "I wouldn't want to be near one; they do kind of scare me."


Caitlin Cleary can be reached at ccleary@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.


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