By Thane Peterson A few weeks ago, I was awakened early one morning by what I thought were several visitors clomping up my front steps. I live in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, and I don't get many unexpected callers, especially at 5 a.m. As I was walking groggily through the living room, I happened to glance out the sliding glass door to the deck -- and into the beady eyes of a black bear, who was looking at me like I was breakfast eggs and bacon. Her cubs were romping on the deck around her.
Now, I don't know if you've ever seen a full-grown bear from a distance of six feet, but it's a sobering experience. There's something very primitive, almost prehistoric, about the animals -- the way they move and their extraordinary power. I stood transfixed for a few moments and then grabbed a stadium air horn I had bought, fearing just such an encounter one day. The bears ran off at the sound of the shrieking noise. But they keep coming back -- and not just to my home. My neighbors and I have had far more bear visits this year than ever before, including one by an enormous 600-pound male that spent an hour in my yard one evening.
All this has gotten me thinking about a something you don't hear discussed much by state wildlife and game authorities: Do bears ever break into houses? And, if so, do they ever do it when people are inside?
FLEET-FOOTED. I know this sounds alarmist. A lot of experts think simply raising the issue is alarmist. Bears generally are afraid of people, and ursine attacks on humans are rare. Admittedly, it's also a parochial concern next to cancer, AIDS, auto accidents, and war. But if you have a weekend house, or live in a fringe suburb in a state such as New York or New Jersey, it's something you might have to think about some day. At the very least, you don't want to wander out to the barbecue and inadvertently get caught between a bear and her cubs.
I consider myself an environmentalist, but when it comes to who's going to control my home and yard -- me or bears -- I'm voting for me. And my guess -- confirmed by an interview with James "Gary" Shelton, a renowned Canadian bear expert and author of the Bear Encounter Survival Guide -- is that this problem is only going to get worse until states are forced to take a more realistic attitude toward managing bears.
Black bears can sprint at 35 miles an hour. Yet, in New Jersey, it's against the law to shoot a charging bear until it's within 10 feet. I asked Bradley Campbell, commissioner of New Jersey's Environmental Protection Dept., if he would really wait that long. After some hemming and hawing, he assured me he would obey the law. I just hope the department has a good second-in-command if the commissioner ever runs up against an angry bear.
HUNTING FOR AN ANSWER. Bear encounters seem more and more likely. The bear population all along the East Coast has soared as farmland has gone out of production and vast tracts of land have been reforested. In Pennsylvania, the estimated number of bears has more than tripled in two decades, to about 15,000. In New Jersey, there were fewer than 100 bears in the 1970s. State authorities believe there are now upward of 3,200.
Therein, I believe, lies a big part of my problem. Pennsylvania's bear worries are most pronounced in the Pocono Mountain region, near where I live. And most of New Jersey's bears are concentrated in the northwest, right across the border (though they're spreading around the state). Pennsylvania now has an extra-long bear-hunting season in northeastern counties, and 2,686 bears were taken last year in the Keystone State -- quite a few. Yet bear sightings and break-ins continue to climb.
One reason? New Jersey hasn't had a bear hunt since 1970, largely because of opposition from environmentalists and animal-rights activists. A hunt may finally be instituted this December, though opponents are still fighting it. They contend a bear-contraceptive program and other alternatives would suffice.
RARE ATTACKS. Meanwhile, the bears just keep getting bolder. The number of reported successful "home entries" by New Jersey bears nearly doubled last year, to 55. Reports of attempted entries (where the bear failed to get inside) quintupled, to 25. Granted, in many cases the bear was probably breaking into a garage or basement rather than the living area, but it's still a disturbing trend. In New York, there have been 805 "nuisance bear encounters" so far in the state's fiscal year, which ends June 30. That's a 22% increase over the previous fiscal year.
Fatal bear attacks on humans are extremely rare, but they do happen. Last August, a wild bear snatched an infant from her stroller in Fallsburg, N.Y., about 70 miles northwest of New York City, and mauled her to death. Injuries are increasing, too. In late May , a 35-year-old New Jersey man leaped on the back of a bear sow that had wandered into his yard with its cub and was attacking the family dog. The bear threw the man off and bit him on the hand, arm, and head before running off. The same week, another bear swatted a two-year-old New Jersey boy, though the boy wasn't badly hurt.
State officials mainly fault humans in such situations. For instance, Campbell notes wryly that jumping on a bear's back "might make the situation more dangerous." If you encounter a bear, officials suggest trying to scare if off by making lots of noise, preferably from an upstairs window. Call the game commission if the bear won't leave.
URSINE SAVVY. In general, state officials say, bears are attracted by food. They counsel people to stop feeding birds, put garbage out right before pickup, feed pets inside, and pick fruit and berries before they fall to the ground. Above all, remember that it's illegal to deliberately feed bears. According to Jerry Feaser, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, break-ins usually occur when people leave food out so they can watch the bears feeding, and then stop for some reason. The bear, accustomed to proximity to humans, goes looking for food inside.
None of this rings very true to me, however. I long ago stopped feeding the local birds, yet the bears keep coming. Mama and her three cubs were back on June 21 -- in broad daylight.
Shelton says bears will continue to encroach on human territory as long as their numbers keep increasing. "[State officials] think that if you educate people to do everything right -- like putting your garbage out an hour before the collection -- bears will stay away," he says. "Bears will not stay away. They're predators, and they'll just keep taking your territory, including coming into your house. Bears can defeat every one of the regulations that are being passed. If people wait until the last minute to put out their garbage, pretty soon the bears will be there waiting for them."
POLITICALLY INCORRECT. Shelton says a few other disturbing things. Bear-contraceptive schemes don't seem to work, and he also contends that bears -- for reasons unknown -- sometimes turn predatory and actually stalk and kill humans, citing the example of a bear that invaded a home in Arizona and killed a 73-year-old woman. To control bears, it's necessary to kill the really bold ones before they become too aggressive, he says. That's why in British Columbia, which has a population of 166,000 bears, the most in North America, 50 or 60 bears are shot annually around smaller towns such as Kamloops and Prince George. Around Vancouver, the number is several hundred.
Such lethal measures are politically unacceptable in most states, at least for now. "People want a greater response [to bears], especially in fringe suburbs, but they gravitate toward nonlethal solutions," notes Bill Siemer, a researcher in Cornell University's Natural Resources Dept. who is studying New York's bear problem, Lethal or nonlethal, I think we'd better do something quick. From where I stand, the bears are winning every round. When he's not chasing bears off of his front porch, Peterson is contributing editor for BusinessWeek Online. Follow his column every week, only on BW Online