By CRAIG FREILICH
Several sightings of black bears around Hannawa Falls and the killing of another in the City of Ogdensburg have raised concern that encounters with bears might be on the increase in St. Lawrence County.
Jo Anne Roberts, a staff member at the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce who lives on Sturtevant Road west of Rt. 56 between Hannawa Falls and Colton had one around her house several times last week.
Roberts says she was home with her nine-year-old daughter Abby when at about 6:30 Monday evening, May 16, “out of the corner of my eye, I saw him, and he was just strolling up the driveway. It was very surreal. At first I didn’t believe what I was seeing. He came around my porch to my back steps,” Roberts told us. “If I had been out on the porch...”
“My Irish setter, Cocoa, started barking and made sure he knew he wasn’t welcome. The bear didn’t run, but just sauntered into the backyard and into the woods and disappeared.”
“I’ve visited Alaska seven or eight times, and I even lived up there for a while. I used to see moose and all kinds of wildlife, and here we see turkeys, deer and rabbits all the time, but I wasn’t prepared to see a bear in my driveway.”
“Abby and I said the first time we saw it, it was cool. But the second and third time was not so cool. It was obviously after something.”
Yes, it returned at about 7:15 that night. Abby saw it first.
“Oh, mommy, he’s back,” Abby said.
“I grabbed my phone and took a couple of pictures. He turned and looked at me, and just sat down near the garage. The dog was barking and the bear got up and ran into the woods again. That was the only time I saw him run.”
At 9 p.m., Roberts says Abby was asleep when the dog started barking “incessantly. The bear was at the back corner of the house again. Cocoa was still barking, and the bear walked down to the road, and disappeared walking down the center of the road.”
When Roberts called the Department of Environmental Conservation office in Potsdam, she spoke with Principal Fish and Wildlife Technician Blanche Town.
“Blanche asked me about garbage – no, that wasn’t it – and bird feeders – no, not them either – and gas grills. Well I have a brand new gas grill and I had used it for the first time at about 5:30 to cook one little hamburger for Abby.
“Blanche said it probably smelled better to the bear than whatever green stuff it was eating in the woods.” Roberts says the grill was right at the back of the house where the bear had been.
The sighting by Roberts is one of several in the Hannawa area recently, part of a general increase in bear reports. The DEC’s Blanche Town says it’s likely that those sightings around Hannawa were all of one bear.
“The reports in this area all describe an adult bear of approximately the same size, in search of man-made food items. It is likely, because of the close proximity of the sightings and the habits being displayed, that it is the same bear in each circumstance.”
“This is the time of year when food supplies are lowest for bears and it’s their mating season, so they’re wandering,” said Stephen Litwhiler, spokesman for the DEC’s Region 6, based in Watertown.
“The bear population seems to be expanding,” Litwhiler said. He bases that observation in part on the increased bear take by hunters in the North Country last year. In St. Lawrence County, hunters harvested 122 black bears in 2009, not up significantly from the 116 in 2008. But in the Adirondack region as a whole, the 814 bears taken in 2009 was a 40 percent increase over 2008.
Totals by town in the county in 2009 were: Pierrepont 19; Hopkinton 13; Colton 13; Parishville 11; Fine 11; Clifton 10; Pitcairn 9; Hermon 8; Russell 7; Edwards 6; Fowler 6; Canton 3; Clare 3; DeKalb 1; Piercefield 1; and Gouverneur 1.
According to Bill Gordon, Wildlife Manager for DEC’s Region 6, “An increase in harvest generally reflects an increase in population, but hunter-related indices are not a reliable measurement” of bear population. But based on other observations, Gordon said, “the bear population is expanding.
“We are seeing bears more in non-traditional territory. We’re getting more reports of sightings, many from people who never saw a bear before. But people will generally call when a bear is causing issues, causing damage.
“With higher density, there is a higher probability of human encounters. Are we going to see a bear every weekend in Ogdensburg? I don’t think so,” Gordon said.
That might be some relief to people in Ogdensburg and other communities along the St. Lawrence River where there were several bear sightings, from Hammond to the city. That bear had visited the house of Ron and Judy Wright of Morristown several times on Friday, May 14, checking out bird feeders, and they sent photos of it to NorthCountryNow.com.
“We think he has moved on as we have not seen him since,” they said. “Several people have reported sightings of bears in Hammond, Morristown and even the City of Ogdensburg. So if you go out in the woods today, you might get a surprise!”
Again, all of those report were probably of the one bear who ended up in Ogdensburg, shot to death early Sunday, May 16 after attempts to anaesthetize it and remove it were unsuccessful.
Roberts said that when she called the Potsdam DEC office, Town told her “that they’ve written up seven or eight reports already this year, when last year they didn’t have that many at the end of July.”
Town confirms that, but says the reports this year are now up to 12, from the townships of Clifton, Colton, Pierrepont, Potsdam, Canton, and Morristown, and the City of Ogdensburg.
In 2009, she recorded at total of 17 reports, and only six from January to July.
Town says they classify bear sightings into four categories: bears that are observed exhibiting normal, natural behaviors; bears that have altered natural foraging behaviors in favor of man-made food sources; bears that clearly show undesirable behaviors in the presence of humans; and bears that are exhibiting or have shown behaviors that are clearly dangerous toward humans, domestic pets, or livestock.
Among this year’s reports, Town said, “four of the reports were just observations, five reported bears at bird feeders, in garbage cans or attracted by barbeque grills.” One was a car/bear collision in Colton in April, and the other the Ogdensburg mortality. “None of the bear calls fell into the #3 or #4 category.”
Town says the most recent sighting, Friday morning near Hannawa Falls, was apparently due to garbage left out.
“People behaving badly” is how Town describes it, while the bears are just doing what they do. What she means is that people, who might not really know better, should educate themselves about what will bring bears to their doorsteps.
The list of precautions to take so bears won’t be attracted to your house that the DEC circulates every year is probably familiar, but Bill Gordon says general technical advice is what many of us have already heard but might take more seriously now.
People should not have open garbage outside, within easy reach of wildlife, Gordon notes. Bears spend a lot of time looking for food, and if they find it someplace, they are likely to remember and make a return trip. Raccoons and coyotes will also go for that, but they do not cause the kind of excitement a 300-pound bear will generate.
And Town says emphasizing a couple of those bits of advice might be called for.
“There are a few that are worth repeating. With a few exceptions the conflicts between humans and bears typically involve bird feeders, garbage and barbeque grills. Taking down bird feeders for the spring and summer months; storing garbage securely in an outbuilding with an ammonia soaked rag, air freshener or mothballs placed in the can along with the garbage is highly recommended; and cleaning and then burning off barbeque grills after use and storing inside if possible, are three great ways to avoid conflicts.”
“At the campground in Cranberry Lake we have had some trouble,” Gordon notes. “So now we go to great lengths to prevent it. We give campers bags for their garbage, and information. We encourage campers to keep the area clean. All it takes is one sloppy camper,” to attract a hungry bear.
What should you do if you see a bear? Depends.
“If people see a bear in an unusual place, sure, we’d like a call,” Gordon said.
Unless a bear is causing trouble they do not need to know about a bear moving in usual bear territory, in the less populated more mountainous terrain in the south of the county, around Fine, Cranberry Lake, and the Harrisville area and into the Adirondacks.
“Two miles outside of Massena? Yes, we’d like to know. If a bear has moved west or north of Rt. 11 in St. Lawrence County, that might be of interest,” Gordon said.
And if people have already called once, Town says, but they believe the bear’s behavior is escalating to the point of threatening to cause damage to property, pets or people, don’t hesitate to call again.
People can call the Potsdam office at 265-3090, or the Watertown office at 785-2239.