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May 04. 2013 8:36PM

Grin and bear it? No way -- people's habits have to change as NH bear population soars

USUALLY IN mid-week, when we've got one WGIR call-in show behind us and are planning to do another (it airs Fridays at 8 a.m.), we're scheming for another upcoming show, and either host Jack Heath calls me or I call him. This week he beat me to the punch. "Let's talk about bears," he said. And so we did, with long-time friend and Fish and Game bear biologist Eric Orff sitting in, a real treat.

Black Bears are doing very well in New Hampshire, with an estimated population of 5,000. In fact, some experts believe that bears are more numerous than when the Abenakis ruled the region before Europeans arrived. Why? Because of the abundance of food. The warming climate and large-scale conservation initiatives and sustainable logging have allowed tens of thousands of mast-producing trees (acorns and beechnuts) to mature to full production, and more farmland is being planted to corn because of escalating grain prices. Finally, hunting has been strictly monitored, and seasons have been curtailed whenever the number of bears killed got too high, too soon.

Andy Timmins is F&G's bear project leader now, and come the first of September, when the bear season begins, he'll have his work cut out for him. Not that bears don't keep him busy during the rest of the year. There are complaints about nuisance bears to be taken care of, and field research includes little items like digging out the dens of radio-collared females, tranquilizing the mother, and weighing and recording the number of cubs.

During the years when I lived in Jefferson, biologist Doug Kane and Kathleen Meddleton were making quite a name for themselves trapping bears in culvert traps and radio collaring the females. Their swift success with the trapping amazed bear aficionados all around.

Doug and Kathleen were housed in a cabin at the foot of Cherry Mountain, but somehow they often managed to accept a supper invitation at my place. My home on Route 2 a mile East of the Waumbek Golf Course seemed to be a convenient way-station for all number of wildlife biologists, conservation officers (game wardens), wildlife professors and grad students, and in general anyone who wanted to relish the outstanding view of Jefferson's countryside and the Presidential Range. It was a rich mix of people at the supper table, a happy circumstance that, in subtle ways helped shape the lives of my kids.

Doug Kane returned the favor by giving me a Labrador pup, which I (of course) named Kane. I loved that dog to death, literally. When his time came, from severe arthritis and other disabling afflictions, he went to the big sleep in my arms, in the back yard and in view of the countryside he loved to roam.

I shot a bear when I was 13 or so and had absorbed much camp lore. I regretted it immediately because I shot it out of reflex, camp lore being that the only good bear is a dead bear, and I vowed then and there never to pull the trigger on a bear again. The bears must have hacked into my cerebral website, because I've been lucky with seeing and encountering bears ever since. Ergo:

. On a rainy and windless spring day I was running from Vicky Bunnell's house in Bungy to Colebrook, a distance, I think, of around seven miles, when a bear popped out of the woods smack in front of me on Titus Hill Road. It stopped and stood and swayed around to catch my scent, while I stopped and tried to calm down my breathing, from the running, not out of any fear of the bear. After a few seconds of this I said what I say whenever I'm in close proximity to wildlife, "What are you doing, Bub," and the bear was off like a shot, racing back down through the big hardwoods like a slaloming skier.

. On the way to Arcia French's house in Landaff I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a bear sitting in an overgrown pasture. It was the first time I'd ever seen a sitting bear. On the way back home, I stopped to hop the fence and see what the bear had been up to. It had pawed over a rotten log and unearthed a huge colony of ants. This gave me pause to consider, once again, the ratio of energy expended versus energy obtained. But all bets are off when a bear is emerging from the den and is too famished to care.

. On the upper end of Deadwater, where low growth and beaver ponds predominate, I was hunched down in a tunnel of alders and fir, my rifle in one hand and the other hand busy pushing branches aside so I could get through, when I came nose to nose with an oncoming bear. It was as startled as I was, whirled around and sped off toward Maine.

The bear, to me, is a magnificent animal best enjoyed by the sheer pleasure of seeing it. Others who equally appreciate bears for their hide and meat hunt them beginning the first of September by stalking, baiting or hounding, to which I remind myself, well, to each his own.

As what passes for civilization creeps into ever more bear habitat, "nuisance bears" are an increasing workload for biologists and conservation officers. These incidents are almost always a consequence of people's careless food storage or disposal of garbage. And, increasing and amazingly, there are people who actually feed bears, I guess out of a Disney-like, up-close and personal desire to watch bears in their back yards.

The bottom line is the oft-used slogan, "A fed bear is a dead bear." People who are careless with garbage or people who feed bears are making the bear equate people with food. And eventually the bear will have to be live-trapped and moved to a distant people-free location, an increasingly hard thing to find, and if the bear manages to return, it will be killed.

John Harrigan's address: Box 39, Colebrook NH 03576, or e-mail at hooligan@ncia.net





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