TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—It’s been about a century in the making, but black bears have moved back into Tompkins County.
Up until 10 or 15 years ago, a black bear sighting in Tompkins County was a rarity, and only now has become somewhat common. Their curious faces, large furry bodies, and their lumbering — yet purposeful — saunter have become consistently spotted on rural roadsides, on trail and security cameras, and in backyards, especially if there’s a bird feeder or another tasty meal left out.
Black bears are the second largest mammal in New York State behind the moose. Males can weigh up to 300 pounds. Their presence is welcomed by many, regarded as a nuisance by some, but the bears are likely here to stay.
The black bear’s disappearance and return to the area has everything to do with the reforestation that has occurred in the county since the 1920s and 30s, said Dr. Paul Curtis, a wildlife specialist in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University.
Timber harvesting and agriculture dominating land use in the Southern Tier, eliminated the viable habitat for bears and pushed them out. Curtis said that historical records show that just 5% of the county was forested at its lowest point. Now woods and forests cover between 65 to 75% of the county.
“At one point, there were no deer in Tompkins County. There were no bears. There were almost no wild turkeys in Tompkins County because there were no forests to support them,” Curtis said.
As trees return to previously deforested areas, the bear population is only expected to grow. Thirty to forty years ago black bears lived in three distinct populations in New York state: in the Catskills, in the Adirondacks, and in the forested hills of the Southern Tier. But with the growth of forested corridors, the black bear populations in the Southern Tier and Catskills have built a stable exchange, said Curtis, and the expectation is that the same thing will happen with the population in the Adirondacks.
While the return of deer to the Tompkins County area was likely met with a similar sense of marvel bears are experiencing now, such ungulates have lost their glamor, squarely earning the status of an overpopulated nuisance. Whatever the future holds for black bears in the area, people seem delighted as the furry creatures settle into the forested areas of the county, like in the towns of Danby, Caroline and Newfield.
“They’re definitely on the ascendancy,” Danby Town Supervisor Joel Gagnon said.
On social media groups, like the “Danby/South Hill Community” FaceBook group, neighbors have been sharing videos of their celebrity encounters with their local black bears. Whether it’s a snippet of one roaming through a yard, or the aftermath of a bear having its way with a bird feeder, an air of excitement with a tinge of caution accompanies each post.
Black bears are not aggressive unless provoked or cornered. Experts recommend that when people have a surprise encounter with a black bear they shouldn’t run, but shout and make a lot of noise, and try to make themselves look large.
“Bears typically don’t want to be around people, they try to avoid people as much as possible,” Curtis said. “But when they’re hungry, they will come to food sources and, naturally, that’s what gets them in trouble.”
Bears wil treat their taste buds to compost, trash, or even a grill if it’s left uncleaned. They also, obviously, love honey, so beekeepers have to be on alert or invest in electric fences, which are supposed to be an effective deterrent to protect their hives. Black bears also like to munch on corn in the fall to fatten up before they hibernate in the winter, Curtis said.
For people trying to learn how to live with their new neighbors, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation recommends not to feed the bears and to remove any potential food that they could be attracted to.
Curtis’ recommendation is that people learn to live with their furry neighbors sooner, rather than later. “I think the bears are here to stay, and we’re gonna have to learn how to live with them as much as possible to avoid conflicts. So we need to change our behaviors. We can’t expect the bears to change theirs.”