Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Bearing With It

“Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby.” 
― James Rollins, "Ice Hunt"

Here in the suburbs we have our neat lawns, our "park-like" and fenceless backyards, our bird feeders to attract cardinals, chickadees and titmice.

You don't expect black bear out here.

But after years of warnings I believe I had an unwelcome visitor sometime the other night and I believe it was a bear.

I opened the shades in the morning and saw only one of two feeder poles and only one of three feeders. Cursing, in disbelief, I grabbed a parka against the dawn chill and ran outside to find one pole bent nearly to the ground (the feeder, where the seed tube is enclosed in a squirrel-proof cage, was still secured to the pole and in one piece). The house feeder - mentioned many a time in these posts - had been ripped from the other feeder pole, which had been bent back from the force of being pulled.

Female cardinal atop house feeder, pre-bear. (Margo D. Beller)
That feeder lay on the ground, empty. I was relieved to find it had not been smashed to bits.

Only the suet feeder - with its plain, unscented suet - was untouched.

My first thought was, WHO would do such a malicious thing. MH had no such thoughts - he immediately cursed and said the bears had finally gotten to our little town.

That wasn't quite true. Years ago, when we had more apple trees, I came out one morning to find a hunk of one tree on the ground and a large indentation (not to mention a lot of scat) and we conjectured a young bear went up in the tree for a snack and the branch gave way, bringing both down. We laughed about it and hadn't thought of bear since.

No more laughing.

This has been another strange winter. No, we weren't buried under the feet of snow seen last winter but it has been very cold for most of the last six weeks and even now, in late March, any warmish weather (which has caused the early flowers to bloom) has been countered by cold, very windy and wintry times.

Still, there comes a point when hibernating animals need to wake up and start eating. I was not surprised to find a chipmunk running around the backyard recently, the bane of my garden's existence because of its damned digging.

Black bear, June 2014, Old Mine Rd., Sussex County, N.J. (RE Berg-Andersson)
Bears are another matter. Bears have been found in most of wooded northern New Jersey for decades. As the population has increased, bears have spread south and east so that there are more bear encounters in urban areas and in parts of the state where a bear had never been seen. Bears have long been part of Morris County, but not my part of the county. Or so I thought.

The other year the mayor of our town had notices put in every mailbox warning people bears were waking up and would be active and hungry, and to take in feeders and keep your garbage secured and watch your pets. In researching this post I found that in 2010, for instance, a bear was seen in broad daylight on our train tracks. The bear problem has gotten so bad the state has reinstated a bear hunt, which has been popular with the deer hunting crowd but not so popular with the animal lovers.

One such animal lover accused me of causing the deer and bear problem by moving to my suburban development. I told the man my house had been built in the 1960s when the populations of both creatures were much lower and, besides, it wasn't my fault. I told him I supported the hunt and if looks could kill my head would be hanging over his mantel.

So now I take the feeders in at night and I have to either straighten the pole - it was bent at a 45 degree angle - or replace it. Since we are coming into spring I have cut back the number of feeders I put out to two, the house (which I repaired) and the suet. But I miss that second pole, not just for putting out more seed but for hanging flower baskets during the summer.

I guess I got off easy. In other areas property has been destroyed, pets and livestock killed and, in one gruesome case, a college student was mauled to death by a bear while hiking in northern New Jersey. As the human population moves into housing developments built where they have no business being (in the 1960s people didn't wonder about such things when my house was built on what had been meadows), there will be more interactions with wildlife.

There are already many reports of coyotes. I've seen foxes and racoons running down my street, as well as skunk and the occasional possum. Deer have been a nemesis almost from the day we moved into this house over 20 years ago.

But bear is different. Bear is big, strong, fast and dangerous. A bear that can bend a metal feeder pole to the ground can snap my spine. If I get between a sow and her cub, I'm dead. Bears have learned to appreciate fine dining from garbage pails and dumpsters as their natural habitat is destroyed.

Like the deer, they have lost their fear of people. It doesn't help when people are stupid enough to try to entice bear into pictures with their children, as one NJ idiot did using a bagel.

Years ago one of my nieces casually told me of the bear she'd seen just that morning at the end of the driveway during my visit to that very house. In rural New Hampshire bear are no big deal. They are respected but they are also hunted. Balance is maintained. Not in the suburbs where I live. Any threat to small children and pets or a genteel way of life where interaction with the natural world is unnatural if it can't be completely controlled must be eradicated, the faster the better.

The bear problem in NJ reminds us you can't let things get out of balance. Our ancestors hunted bear - over-hunted them, in fact. That wasn't right either. Now that the population has been allowed to come back, it is time to start the hunt again, to get the numbers to a manageable point.

Yes, it would be fine to stop people from ripping up woods, damming streams and building mega-houses on multi-acre lots, forcing the clear-cutting of trees and the digging up of land to accommodate sewage, gas and power lines.

But it is unrealistic to think 2/3 of the population of New Jersey, myself included, is going to just go away, just as it's a fantasy to think allowing bears to spread out and breed unmolested is a good thing. At the same time, if you are going to put people in bear country, interactions are going to happen and someone - bear or human - is going to get hurt.

I got my warning. I'm heeding it.