Black Bears: More Than A Pic-A-Nic Basket Full
April 2, 2013

Black Bears: More Than A Pic-A-Nic Basket Full

This week, the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) released a report about the history of the black bear in Nevada, complete with maps and graphs and population estimates. (Almost sounds like there should be 27 or so 8×10 glossy color photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, right?)

In the 1930s, the black bear had been hunted into near extinction in Nevada, and the good folks at NDOW are happy to say they have at least 262 bears in the state, as of today. That’s a good manageable number of bears. I think the state conservationists should be given a pat on the back and an “atta-boy” for all the work to protect and understand the bears.

Let me stop there for a moment and ask if you have ever seen a bear up close? The first one I ever saw was at a now defunct “rescue zoo” in Norman, Oklahoma. The Little River Zoo took in animals that were lost during storms, from zoos that were going out of business, and private owners who couldn’t handle the animals any more. They gave personally guided tours that involved howling with the wolves, petting the African Serval Razzmatazz, and hanging out with the two black bears.

I’ve also been to Bear Country, USA outside of Rapid City, SD, which is a drive-thru safari dedicated to bears of all sorts. I saw a bear playing in Yellowstone National Park last summer. But my favorite two sightings, though, happened in Virginia. One bear was just running down the road and climbed up a tree in front of me as I drove by on a backcountry road in the mountains. The final sighting was in Shenandoah National Park. Mamma bear and two cubs were eating next to the road and had gathered a crowd of on-lookers. There was a low stone wall between us and the mother bear, who sat on her haunches calmly about 20 feet away eating and watching us. The babies were in a tree about ten feet behind her. As long as all the humans stayed on their side of the wall, Mamma was just fine. One fool, however, had to try to step over the wall to get a closer picture. Mamma stood up and just leaned towards us, growling softly. You have never seen 50 people move that fast in your whole life!

Let’s go back to the numbers. Nevada’s population is under 300, which means there are just enough bears to be noticeable, but not enough to really start causing problems.

New Jersey, however, has a totally different bear problem. No, Ranger Rick, they aren’t stealing pic-a-nic baskets. They are being attracted to garbage cans and easy food sources. The problem is so big that the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife has an entire website dedicated to educating the public about the bears and how to avoid them. Bear sightings have been confirmed in all 21 counties of New Jersey, with an estimated statewide population of nearly 3,000 bears. That’s 100 times as many as Nevada deals with and in a LOT smaller, much more heavily populated area.

In fact, the black bear problem is so bad in New Jersey that they have an annual black bear hunt. Black bear season is only six days long, and in 2012 there were a reported 287 bears killed. 287 bears, even though each hunter is only allowed to bag one, and there are only four areas of the state where you are allowed to hunt them. Wow!

Whether you are in Nevada or New Jersey, the take away message here is that bear populations are on the rise. So keep your eyes open, and your pic-a-nic basket hidden.

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