State’s study of bruins in High Peaks sheds new light on these creatures of habit.
By MARY THILL
Three guys dressed in moss green and shouldering black shotguns are given wide berth on High Peaks trails. Hikers’ eyes widen as they let the men file past on the well-trodden path from Adirondak Loj to Marcy Dam on a summer evening. The last one in line gets the most questions. “Bears?” “Are you going after bears?” “Are there bears here?” “Are you gonna shoot them?”
“Don’t be alarmed if you hear some shots,” repeats Ben Tabor, a wildlife technician with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) who has been studying black bear behavior in this Wilderness Area for six years. He explains to anyone who wants to know that he and his boss, wildlife biologist Ed Reed, and fellow wildlife tech Andy Preston are walking the two miles to the popular camping spot to do some “aversive conditioning,” that is, to shoot some bears in the behind with rubber buckshot to discourage them from trying to eat hikers’ food.
Many High Peaks backpackers have made the acquaintance of Yellow-Yellow, a sixteen-year-old female who has gained notoriety as the one bear in North America who’s figured out how to open a double-snap BearVault-brand canister (think industrial child-proof lid that must be pressed in two places).
Yellow-Yellow, named for the color of her ear tags, has also made Tabor’s acquaintance. It’s not likely he’ll see her tonight, Tabor says; bears have a keen sense of smell, and she steers clear of his scent, which she associates with getting trapped, tranquilized, collared, tagged and/or shot-spanked eight times over a half dozen years.
But a new bear, an untagged male of about three hundred pounds, has wandered into the area. He’s been hanging around Marcy Dam, trying his claws on food containers and perhaps courting Yellow-Yellow. The three DEC staffers have a good chance of meeting this young animal and delivering the message that people equal pain, not food.
He’d been sighted at Marcy Dam recently, but it turns out that more people than bears get a lesson from DEC this evening. As the sun sets, ten hungry summer-camp boys return from mountain climbing to begin cooking hot dogs and s’mores at the “Horse Barn,” a lean-to big enough to sleep a dozen people. Forest Ranger Jim Giglinto has been keeping an eye on their site. One of the teenagers had left an open tomato-sauce container on the floor; tin cookware was not well washed, and a pile of food canisters stored too close to the shelter included two BearVaults, which the manufacturer guarantees will work everywhere except in the eastern High Peaks.
Giglinto approaches the group and explains that unless they tidy up, the lean-to is bear bait. “Just make sure things are clean because there are food scraps on that stuff,” he says. “Get things moving because this is kind of the witching hour, OK guys? Thanks. And if you hear gunshots don’t be alarmed.” One kid asks, “Did you guys see a bear?” “Not yet,” Giglinto replies. “We’re waiting for them to come for your dinner.”
Visits like these are less and less necessary since the DEC started a concerted effort in 2004 to do something about the number of bear/human encounters in the High Peaks. That year 374 people reported seeing black bears in the major trail corridors between Marcy Dam and Lake Colden and in the Johns Brook Valley. Last year DEC got reports of just sixty-two sightings in the same areas. Meanwhile Tabor estimates that the number of bears in the vicinity has probably remained the same: six to eight.
DEC credits a few things for the decrease in run-ins. For one, bear-proof food canisters have been mandatory in the eastern High Peaks since 2005. And a blanket education effort by DEC, the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the Wildlife Conservation Society has helped hikers learn how not to attract bears (don’t cook where you sleep, cook well before nightfall, and other common-sense advice). Rangers can issue tickets to overnight campers who don’t use canisters—the penalty can be up to $300 or fifteen days in jail—but they prefer to talk to people at trailheads, before they enter the woods, to explain why they’ll want proper food-storage gear. Canisters can be rented from outdoor outfitters for as little as $5 for two nights.
“I think when we started, the attitude among campers was, it’s DEC’s responsibility to deal with the bears,” Ed Reed says. “Now I think we’ve turned that around, that it’s their responsibility to keep the food away from bears.”
DEC spokesman David Winchell says at first there was some resistance to canisters. The tubs are bulky and add weight to backpacks. “Now those people are proponents because they’re effective,” he says.
In other parts of the Adirondacks, hanging food bags from trees is still a pretty good deterrent (see Outdoor Skills, page 71), but in the eastern High Peaks—where last year the state’s tallest mountains drew ninety-two thousand hikers, including thirty thousand campers—bears have had the opportunity to learn over and over again that “rope means food,” Reed says.
He recalls one guy who thought it would be smart to put his food in zip-lock bags, fill a stuff-sack with rocks, and toss it all into Marcy Dam Pond. The man was awakened in the middle of the night by splashing. He found a bear pulling the sack to shore by its rope.
“Yellow-Yellow is kind of like our enforcer. We might make her Bear Canister Educator of the Year,” Reed says. “She is on duty all the time,” Tabor adds, nodding.
While the bears have been teaching people new behavior, Tabor and Reed have learned a lot of things about bear behavior. Using radio collars, GPS collars, trail cameras, and sighting report forms that campers fill out, they have pieced together a six-year picture of the life of High Peaks bears, or at least of those who have traveled in the Marcy Dam-Lake Colden corridor, where the majority of complaints were logged and the study was targeted. Tabor did most of the fieldwork, while Reed provided oversight.
“Bears would basically do laps along the trail system,” Tabor says. “Some did four-day cycles, some did two-week cycles. Some went clockwise, some went counterclockwise. They actually stuck to that pattern. I could usually predict where the bears would go if they got into trouble at a certain site. I could pretty much tell you that within a day or two he or she would be at the next site, which shows that they are creatures of habit.”
Yellow-Yellow will often travel from Marcy Dam up Avalanche Pass to Lake Colden, another popular campsite, then south to a natural food source in a meadow near Flowed Lands, then back north via Indian Pass to the Heart Lake/South Meadows area, where there’s a cherry ridge she likes to fatten up on in early fall. For a time, a male bear did a similar circuit in reverse. He was shot by hunters in 2005.
“A lot of people say why don’t you just kill Yellow-Yellow, and your problem will be solved,” Tabor says. “Well, it won’t. … The reason she’s still there since 2004 is she’s scared of people. A hunter has not harvested her; we have not had to take her out because of aggression. She is what we would conclude to be a good bear for the area because she’s not aggressive.
“She does steal food, and you cannot stop a bear from eating the food that’s available, but you can make them afraid of people, and that’s what we’ve done with her,” he continues. “If we removed her we might get a younger bear, and who knows what personality that bear would hold, and that could be an aggressive young male and we don’t want that. Yellow-Yellow effectively keeps a number of larger males out of the area.”
Some of the most eye-opening data from the GPS collars (there were four at the beginning of the study; the batteries have since worn down) have been the movements of male bears.
A twenty-year-old male tagged Red-Green tended to travel clockwise around the Marcy/Colden area to Johns Brook Valley and the Ausable Club, near Keene Valley. “This guy, one fall, he went all the way to Poke-O-Moonshine [Mountain]. He spent about two months up there in an oak forest eating acorns,” Reed says. “He went direct line: it only took a couple days to get there, and he went over three mountain ranges to do that, so he knew his way,” Tabor says.
“It’s conjecture as to why or how,” he continues. “People have always hinted that they home like a bird, but there is no evidence to suggest that in the research. But there is evidence to suggest that if a bear is five years old or older, he’s gone on enough walkabouts or tours of the country that he’s got a lay of the land, so he recognizes landmarks, rivers, and other things, just like you or I would if we’ve driven around a lot.
“I would like to do more research into that aspect of it, to look at ages and how bears move. I think some of these bears on a yearly basis just take a compass bearing and go with it. They explore and look for new food sources, they look for new mates.”
A female bear typically gives birth every other year, Tabor explains, and she doesn’t want males around her cubs. To breed annually, males must move on. “That will basically shuffle those males around, keeping the population well diversified,” he says. “These males I think have a natural instinct to disperse very far but come back to their home ranges. I think that’s why we see nuisance behavior the way we do. It’ll go in spurts. … A lot of time it’s the young males that get in trouble, and it’s because they’re testing the waters—they’re [like] teenagers, they’re looking for these new territories.”
A trap and a spanking can be especially effective at redirecting the young guys. One GPS-collared boar that Tabor hazed near Lake Colden in 2005 high-tailed it out of there and headed for Crown Point, possibly his home range. Red-Green, by contrast, became aggressive with age. He began entering lean-tos and growling at campers, a strategy that rewarded him with food until DEC wildlife staff shot and killed him in 2006.
“These bears are driven by their stomach,” Tabor says. “That’s the premise of this whole High Peaks study. There’s going to be Yellow-Yellow because that’s where she lives, and there’s going to be an influx of bears on the periphery who will be drawn to that food source only because while marauding they find it.”
You have to respect an animal that can remember its way to an acorn patch twenty-five miles away or that can figure out how to press two tiny buttons to open a container specifically designed to baffle it. Tabor and Reed speak with some admiration of Yellow-Yellow, who has played them, feigning grogginess after being trapped, crawling until she reaches cover, and then peeling out before they can reinforce the lesson with rubber buckshot. But they are scientists, and they just don’t use the word “smart” to describe bears.
“We don’t have any evidence that bears reason like primates do. We snare them by the paw, and they don’t take the snare off. They just sit there and stare at us,” Tabor says. “But they definitely learn, and they probably learn at the level of a Labrador retriever.” Reed adds, “Just like a Labrador, if the reward for doing something is food, they will learn it.”
Hunger motivates campers too. If a bear rips into their backpacks and steals their food, they will probably use canisters next time. Despite the success of the DEC’s education campaign so far, humans must be continually schooled if it’s going to succeed in the long run. “Forty percent of the people who come to the High Peaks are first-time campers,” Reed says, “so we can’t relax on education or we’re going to lose ground.”