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Original Issue

Bruins in the Burbs

Like humans, black bears are finding the good life in housing developments

Dave Kaplan's problems began in the winter of 1989. One night as he was sleeping, his wife, Lorraine, nudged him. "There's something out there making a lot of noise under the deck," she said.

"I heard bumping," says Kaplan, "but I'm from New York City. I know from muggers. So I told Lorraine it was probably a raccoon. Next day I finally looked under the deck, and the lattice had a hole in it. Three or four slats were broken out, so I had to call a carpenter to fix it.

"Six repairs later the carpenter comes up and tells me, 'Hey, you got a sleeping bear under your deck.' The same day, Dr. Gary Alt [a Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist] called me. 'Mr. Kaplan,' he said, 'we've radio-tracked Penta, one of our study bears, and she's denned under your deck.' "

Alt told the Kaplans not to worry: "She'll sleep for three months or until her cubs are born. When spring arrives and there's food available, the family will leave."

Because black bears rarely return to the same den in consecutive years—a habit that helps to protect them from watchful predators, such as humans—Alt told the Kaplans that they would see no more of the bears. "You'll die of old age before Penta dens here again," Alt assured them.

Two years later Penta—all 340 pounds of her—showed up again, pregnant.

The Kaplans, who live in Hemlock Farms, a private residential community in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania, are among a growing number of humans who are learning to live with something new: metro bears.

Ordinarily, black bears frequent deep forest. But as housing developments move into bear country, the adaptable animals have found ways to cope. "Their backyard is now our backyard," says Rob Calvert, a wildlife biologist in New Hampshire. And the bears' new neighbors aren't all that upset about it. According to a paper published in 1992 by Stephen R. Kellert, a professor at Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Americans think of bears as being similar to people, and we are more tolerant of ursids than biologists had once thought.

"Forget about going to Alaska," says Alt. "Places like the Hemlock Farms development are the new frontier. Four-and-a-half thousand acres, 2,500 homes, at least 20 bears—all coexisting in relative harmony. Once the residents know that black bears are docile, shy and retreating animals, they reach for the blue pages [government agency listings] and call me instead of reaching for a gun."

Judging by bear weights and the numbers of cubs being born, 'civilization agrees with metro bears. "These are the good old days for them," says Alt. "In Hemlock Farms, 20 percent of the females produce four cubs every other year. We have one female, Vanessa, who has produced 29 cubs in 10 years. Compare that with Alaska, where females don't start a family until the age of seven and then produce only a cub or so every three or four years."

And sturdy bears arc the norm at Hemlock Farms and elsewhere in the area. These male bears average 500 pounds, compared with a national average of 250 pounds. Last spring Alt visited a den in Hemlock Farms where he found a male who, despite his hibernation (bears neither eat nor drink during their winter sleep), weighed 685 pounds.

And such large bears are not the result of ursine junk-food binges. People in Hemlock Farms are careful with their garbage, and the community dumpster is bear-proof. "We've adapted," says Blanche Glass, a clinical psychologist who lives in the development. "At Halloween, there's no corn on the front door."

Nor are the bears beggars. "Most of the residents know that feeding them is like signing their death warrant," says Alt. '"Once a bear learns to expect food from humans, it is a nuisance bear in the making. Mothers will teach their cubs, and a dangerous cycle begins. As soon as there is an incident, there'll be public outcry, and innocent bears will get shot."

In Hemlock Farms, where bears lived before the development was built in 1963, only two bears have had to be destroyed. And that was only after they each broke into half a dozen houses. "We learned later that one family fed a bear in their house daily," says Alt, "bringing it repeated courses directly from the refrigerator."

When they are left on their own, Hemlock Farms bears get plenty to eat from nature. "It's a great bear habitat," says Alt of the area, "lots of acorn-filled oaks, berries, insect larvae, grass, deer fawns and road-killed carrion. And the bears are safe during hunting season."

In neighboring New Jersey. Barbara Calitre, a homeowner in Stillwater, says, "I thought I was all alone until [state bear researcher! Patty McConnell came through my yard tracking a radio-collared bear to its den in a brush pile 100 yards from my house." Although Calitre admits she stayed in her house for a day or so, she accepted the situation. "That bear and her four cubs were very happy, so neither of us saw any reason to leave," she says.

In bear-rich Minnesota, black bears are frequent visitors to suburban backyards, especially in Duluth. A few years ago two bears were found sleeping the winter away in a culvert in a crowded Duluth neighborhood. Rich Staffon, an area wildlife manager, says, "Here we try to train the people. When residents call, we don't automatically move the bear. We ask them if they have bird feeders out, or dog food or garbage. We tell them to clean it up. If the bear still hangs around once the humans have made a good-faith effort, when they call a second time we'll go and move it. But relocating is only a Band-Aid. Ultimately we are trying to teach people to take care of the problem themselves."

New Hampshire bears, like bears elsewhere, have taken to snacking on sunflower-seed-filled bird feeders. "In fact," says Calvert, "bears get so used to getting a treat from poles with little boxes on top of them or from containers hanging on porches that they sometimes grab hanging flowerpots, tetherball poles, even flags on a golf course," he says.

One reason for the bears' temerity is that they are polygamous. Males seek out as many females as they can during the breeding season, which peaks in June and July, and thus a male's territory is much larger—sometimes 100 square miles—than a female's and may overlap with the territories of many females. McConnell says that one New Jersey giant makes his dens in Sussex County, but when he is in a courting mood he visits comely females in Hemlock Farms, some 30 miles to the north across the Pennsylvania state line. "I guess those Pennsylvania females have something our Jersey bears don't," says McConnell. "Gary Alt is always calling me to complain that the interstate bear is harassing his female bears."

After cubs are born they usually stay with their mother for more than a year, often hibernating with her until the following spring. Females frequently give part of their territory to their daughters, while young males head farther afield. "The males are just like I was when I was 17," says Dick Henry, a New York State biologist. "They're out looking for something, but they're not sure what."

And they often end up in strange places. When one young male bear found himself at a major railroad intersection in Covington. Va., he drew a large crowd. "A train was coming through in 30 minutes." says Dennis Martin, a local bear researcher. "We had to stop Amtrak." The 150-pound trespasser was tranquilized and moved some 50 miles away, which is standard procedure for dealing with displaced bears.

Bears from Maryland. West Virginia and Virginia head down the Potomac River drainage that leads to Washington, D.C. They have even sidled up to the capital's Beltway. A few years ago a young bear was spotted near the entrance ramp of Route 270, a major artery into the city, causing quite a sensation among commuters.

But despite their wanderlust, black bears are easy to discourage. Says Henry, whose area in New York State covers several counties north of New York City, "Last year alone we had 75 bear complaints, but although the humans expect violence, the bears just want to escape."

Although black bears once roamed much of the country, they now live in only 40 or so states. Still, there are signs that the animals may be making a comeback elsewhere. In the 1960s Minnesota exported bears to bruin-poor Arkansas, where they did so well that the state now has a bear-hunting season. Recently, a bear spotted in Iowa—which had not seen one in years—stirred heated controversy among wildlife experts. "We couldn't agree if it was expanding its range south from Minnesota or north from Arkansas," says Dave Garshelis, a bear biologist in Minnesota. For all we know it may have been headed for Illinois to stake out its claim as the first real Chicago bear since the 1850s.

Adele Conover is a freelance science writer who is based in Washington, D.C.



Alt collared a bear family under the Kaplans' porch. Nearby, a bruin feasted on birdseed—feeder and all.



As more people around the country move into houses in bears' habitats, neither side is driving the other away.