Bears wander into town for a reason

Few outdoor events will get you on television faster than having a black bear decide to stroll through town.

The sight of a bear sniffing around a backyard in a rural area or a bunch of bears rummaging through neighborhood dumpsters sets off an immediate chain of events. All the neighbors are notified, some even panic, and everyone wants to get a glimpse of the animal but only from a distance.

Pennsylvania has a huge and healthy population of bears, and many top the 600-pound class. Bears are not usually aggressive unless deliberately goaded by some foolish person or because they believe their cubs are threatened. If you see a bear, it will usually go away on its own, calmly, if you just let it alone. Back away quietly, stay calm and enjoy the sight.

So the question always is: Why does a bear show up in town?

One main reason is that someone is enticing it to a particular location with food. Many folks get a kick out of throwing out leftovers; stale donuts, fat or suet and so on outside their picture window so that bears will come in close enough for folks to view them or to try to get photos.

Bears are opportunists and can smell goodies from a couple of miles away and will venture close to human habitations – which they would normally avoid – to get the treats. They are tense while doing so, and if startled, their nerves will send them into a defensive posture, usually some sort of slap from one of their powerful paws.

When the time comes – and it will – that the landowner is through with the game and decides to discontinue the nightly offerings, well, the bear does not understand that. He just knows his treat is not there, and it makes him mad. That’s when he is likely to go searching for what he is sure is around somewhere. He gets mad when he can’t find his pile of apples. If, about then, someone comes around the side of the house and surprises him, he is likely to react. He might run, but then again he might charge. These are the bears that come onto the back porch, rip the screens. It’s the bear’s version of a temper tantrum.

From across the state this summer are plenteous reports of black bears that wander into populated areas, climb trees and refuse to come down. Usually, police and firemen are called, and in the end, the Game Commission has to tranquilize the animal, lower it from the tree and transport it to some remote area for release. Already in Altoona’s city limits we’ve heard of bears close to houses, raiding garbage cans, walking through yards, all the usual stuff.

But why do the beasts come to town?

June through August is the breeding season for black bears. Female bears come in estrus usually only every other year so her cubs stay with her for about 18 months. Born in January, cubs stay with the mother until she comes in estrus again.

When a sow is in her breeding cycle, cubs are suddenly unwelcome. The sow chases her yearlings away to establish their own lives while she begins the cycle of breeding and birth again. It’s nature’s way. The young bears are well able to take care of themselves, nevertheless, it’s a new experience for them.

As yearling males roam about seeking to establish a new territory, it is not unusual for such a bear to wander into a town for awhile. He’s really just on the move, sort of confused, and would, if left alone, eventually wander out of town again.

Anytime folks see a bear near their homes it causes quite a stir. Many folks are stricken with fear, supposing this bear to be a man-eating beast. Others think it is so “cute” and attempt to get pictures.

The bears, confused and panicked themselves, instinctively climb a tree for safety and usually stay there until they are either left alone or the Game Commission deals with them.

This time of year folks see fawns in a field. Since they don’t see the doe they decide the fawn has been abandoned and try to “rescue” it. Or baby raccoons, or birds or whatever. They look so cute, folks think, so decide to take them home and raise them.

It’s a mistake, a big one, to attempt to raise wildlife. It’s also illegal, and for very good reasons. These are wild animals, not tame ones, and while they may look cute for awhile, as they mature, their natural wildness dominates. They become aggressive, biting and scratching and are quickly very un-cute. So the rescuers, having all of it they can take, dump them out in the woods somewhere. The dumpee generally dies, since it does not know how to take care of itself.

Animals, especially bears and fawns, are seldom abandoned.

Does put their fawns in isolated places and then go off to bed elsewhere. That way, there is no scent to attract predators. She is probably not too far away, and if you leave her young alone, she will return to them.

Dealing with all this misguided concern keeps wildlife personnel hopping.

The bears, the one who people think are “tamed,” are the ones most likely to cause damage and human injury. The “park bears” may appear to be cute and friendly when they have their head stuck in a garbage can, but they are not.

Bears are bold, and confident of their ability to get rid of any pests that bother them. A bear that has become adjusted to human scent and handouts should be let alone. These are the bears that become nuisances, that have to be trapped and transferred.

A bear that strolls into town is probably already lost, and if left alone, will stroll out again if undisturbed. It’s crowds, screaming and talking, perhaps chasing the animal, that panics it so it runs up a tree. If the crowd would back off, the bear would eventually leave on its own and disappear. He’s just looking for a new place to settle down.

Shirley Grenoble writes an outdoors column each Sunday for the Mirror.