Three-year study sheds light on suburban bear movements

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Mix a growing bear population with Pennsylvania's ever-expanding suburbs and you have a recipe for conflict between bears and people.

Black bears have shown up in residential and commercial districts with greater frequency. Between May 2012 and June 2013, the state Game Commission's three conservation officers assigned to Allegheny County responded to 34 nuisance bear complaints, noted three bears killed on Allegheny County highways, investigated three cases of bear damage to property or crops and documented five bears legally killed in the county by hunters. The same trends are evident around Harrisburg, Erie and other urban regions.

"There hasn't been any part of my district where I haven't had some kind of [bear] incident or complaint," said Wildlife Conservation Officer Gary Fujak, who patrols Pittsburgh's western suburbs from Shaler to Findlay and South Fayette.

Game Commission biologists are learning how and to what extent Pennsylvania black bears use urbanized places. The knowledge they gain will help the agency refine hunting regulations designed to minimize conflicts between people and bears in developed parts of the state.

From May 2010 to July 2013, biologists and conservation officers live-trapped 77 bears in three suburban study areas around Johnstown, State College and Scranton. Each bear was weighed, aged, marked with ear tags and lip tattoos, fitted with a GPS-equipped radio collar, and released as near as possible to the capture site.

Researchers plotted the collared bears' movements at one-hour intervals during the fall, when bears forage most actively, and at three-hour intervals at other times.

Bear biologist Mark Ternent will present a full report of the research findings at the Game Commission's January meeting in Harrisburg.

"We are working up the data for the final report now," Ternent said. "But already we see some insights regarding bear movements and home range."

Ternent believes the final data will show that most bears seen in suburbs are not living there on a permanent basis; rather, they're passing through in random movements.

"What this data seems to be telling us is that just because a bear was captured in the suburbs in June, that's not necessarily where that bear will be in the fall or winter," Ternent said. "These bears tend to be thought of as 'suburban bears' because that's where they're seen. But they're roving, particularly the young males which made up a significant part of our study population. Young males tend to get into trouble more, and they're easier to trap. A few took advantage of food resources in suburbs year-round, but most of our study bears did not."

Ternent suggests that a more accurate way of thinking about "suburban bears" is that suburbs make up a part of their home range but not the entire territory.

Still, some bears were found to prefer town to the mountains.

"One bear in the State College study area denned up for the winter within sight of Beaver Stadium," Ternent said.

Ternent expressed some surprise at the hunter harvest rate of bears tagged for the study.

"We are going to see harvest rates that are very similar to statewide [approximately 18 percent of the population]. That's unexpected because people thought bears were less vulnerable in suburban places because of posting, safety zones or municipal firearm rules. But, still, going forward our ability to manage bears in suburbs will depend largely on the local residents -- how much and what type of hunting will they accept in their communities."

But bears venturing into suburbs die at higher rates for other reasons.

"Bears in our study had a high mortality rate -- three to four [times] higher than statewide -- from highway accidents," Ternent said. "What that may mean, from a management perspective, is that you may not need as much harvest mortality as in rural places."

Vehicle collisions killed nine bears tagged in the three-year study.

Tracking long-range movements wasn't the study's intent, but biologists monitored some bears with extreme wanderlust.

"One bear trapped at the Scranton airport was later killed by a hunter at Raystown Lake after it passed through Potter County," Ternent said. "Another bear trapped in Johnstown made three different trips to Grove City. That was the same well-known bear that visited the mall at Pittsburgh Mills."

Ternent said bears tagged in the three study areas made their winter dens in nine different counties. The biologist offered advice for hunters in the statewide bear season Nov. 23-27 and the longer seasons in WMU 2B.

"Don't overlook bears closer to home," Ternent said. "You don't need to go to the big woods to get a bear."

Ben Moyer is a freelance writer from Farmington, Pa.

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