Cornell program seeks to train people to avoid black bear conflicts

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Meredith Gore
Kevin Stearns/University Photography
Meredith Gore holds a young male black bear skull and an educational poster from the New York NeighBEARhood Watch program. Chris Hallman is dressed as a bear in the background.

Living with neighbors takes on a whole new meaning when the neighbor is a black bear that wanders over uninvited for dinner and ransacks garbage cans, bird feeders and pet food dishes from decks and yards. That's happening more and more often throughout New York and other northeastern states.

Since training wild bears isn't feasible, Cornell University researchers are targeting people with a pilot program that they hope will change habits that attract bears. 

"Be a good neighBEAR ... and don't feed the bears! If you remove the food, you remove the bear" is the main message that will blanket two Hudson Valley, N.Y., communities, Woodstock and Warwick, this summer when a pilot education program is launched to reduce people-bear conflicts. 

The shaded areas show the black bear's primary range in New York.

Cornell graduate research assistant Meredith Gore is conducting and evaluating the education program, the New York NeighBEARhood Watch program, which she developed with colleagues at the Human Dimensions Research Unit in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell and the New York State Department of Conservation's Bureau of Wildlife. 

Black bears, New York's largest carnivore and second largest animal (second only to moose), now inhabit almost every county in the state. With approximately 8,000 bears roaming the Empire State, people-bear conflicts have been steadily increasing, particularly throughout the Adirondacks, the Catskill Forest Preserve and Allegany and Steuben counties in southwestern New York, along the Pennsylvania border. 

"Bears are also a problem in New Jersey, where there have been 600 complaints filed so far this year, as well as in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire," said Gore. "It's not only a regional problem now, but even a national problem, with bears regularly stealing garbage and raiding bird feeders and occasionally killing livestock in northern Florida, Lake Tahoe and British Columbia." 

bear in trash
Gary Goff, Dept. of Natural Resources
A black bear ransacks a garbage can in Newfield, N.Y.

After conducting a survey in fall 2004 to assess what kinds of problems New York state residents were having with bears, Gore developed the pilot education program to compare the effectiveness of eight different kinds of educational materials: a refrigerator magnet, brochure, lawn sign, bear management trunk (an educational kit with a bear hide, bear skull, photos of food bears eat and other materials to teach about bear ecology and management), billboard, BEARometer (a printed guide), fact sheet and magazine article. In October, she will conduct an evaluation to see which materials were most effective in changing human behavior. 

"To be successful, we'll have to change human behavior. Bear behavior won't change readily," explained Paul D. Curtis, professor of natural resources at Cornell and coordinator of the Wildlife Damage Management Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension, who has been working with Gore. 

New York experienced its first documented bear-related human fatality in 2002 in Fallsburg, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, where residents are experiencing some of the greatest bear problems. 

"The changing landscape has been prompting bear problems," said Gore. "Places that used to be agricultural and have become young forest are ideal bear habitats. With increasing bear populations and recent droughts, bears are venturing further for food, often visiting suburban and rural developments and encountering bird feeders and garbage." 

The program suggests numerous ways to make homes less attractive to hungry, wandering bears, such as burning off grease each time an outdoor grill is used, feeding pets indoors, putting out bird feeders only during winter months, keeping garbage indoors until the morning of its scheduled pickup and protecting beehives and livestock with electric fencing.