ALLEGANY STATE PARK — Summer’s “bearly” over in Allegany State Park, and already there is a sigh of relief from park officials that the daily race is over for now to keep park visitors and a number of nuisance black bears from too-close interaction.
There was increased bear activity on both the Quaker and Red House sides of the 65,000-acre state park this summer, said forester Darren Bierfeldt. “I pulled my crew off everything else just to deal with bears” — night and day. It’s estimated there were nine to 12 nuisance bears in the park.
While it was difficult to tell some bears apart, Mr. Bierfeldt said, “We were dealing with more bears this summer. The interaction between bears and people was definitely up this year. They are not all coming from the (Allegheny) National Forest. They could be coming from anywhere.”
In the past, radio collars on bears trapped and tagged in the state park have been found as far away as Cuba, Ellicottville and Machias. They often make their way back to the state park. “The bigger males really move around,” Mr. Bierfeldt said.
This summer, there was some trapping of bears on cabin trails where they had become a nuisance. They were simply released as far away in the park from camping or recreation areas as possible. All but one found their way back to the area where they had been trapped two or three days later. One night while on patrol, Mr. Bierfeldt saw three or four different bears looking for food.
“It’s not just a bear problem,” Mr. Bierfeldt explained. “It’s a people problem, too.” People’s food is the reason most bears are hanging around in the first place. Many people feed the fears, either on purpose or inadvertently by leaving a messy campsite. Bears associate coolers with food, and campers are advised to secure coolers out of sight in their cabin or vehicle.
“Bears consumed my summer,” Mr. Bierfeldt said with smile. “After Labor Day, it kind of winds down because we don’t have as many campers.”
Mr. Bierfeldt said he’s almost more afraid of campers going after bears than the other way around. “We had one report of kids chasing bears with a machete,” he said. Another report involved a sow with two cubs walking through the Red House Tent and Trailer Campsite. “The bears created a traffic jam with everybody trying to get a look at them and take pictures. They pushed the bears toward the tent and trailer area.”
Another popular opportunity for bear watching came when a sow would send her cubs up an apple tree to shake the apples to the ground, he said.
Because of the increased interaction this year between bears and people — despite public information efforts and outright warnings — Mr. Bierfeldt said, “We had to do something.” Rental office personnel issued warnings about bear activity, and when visitors checked in they were asked to sign an acknowledgment of high bear activity and promised to keep their campsites clean. Failure could result in eviction. “We didn’t want anyone not to be aware of the bear situation.”
Mr. Bierfeldt said he and his staff went out on the cabin trails to tell campers how important it was to keep their campsites clean and keep the top on coolers. “People were extremely responsive,” he said. “We targeted the trails that were getting hit the most.”
There also were some bear trap demonstrations on the cabin trails to drive home the message. “People recognized the urgency,” he said.
Still, it was a nightly ritual for campers to watch for bears — particularly in areas where they had been seen previously. The removal of dumpsters several years ago to keep them from attracting bears seemed to work for awhile — until the bears discovered food at the campsites and cabins.
“I left some warning slips on cabin doors where the campsites weren’t cleaned up,” Mr. Bierfeldt said. People generally cleaned up as soon as they got the warning. “People were very responsive to this,” he added. “We were doing it day and night.”
Mr. Bierfeldt said four bears were trapped this summer and two fitted with ear tags identifying them as nuisance bears. As a first warning to some nuisance bears, park staff fired shotgun shells filled with rubber buckshot and, in some cases, paintballs. No bears had to be killed this year, he said. “Trap and transfer isn’t really successful in keeping bears away.”
He said, “We’ve done everything possible to change the bear’s behavior. The next thing we have to work on is people. Don’t leave food out. The bear may visit, but if there’s no food, they will move on. Keep your campsite clean and don’t feed wildlife. It is an automatic eviction. If I see someone doing it, they will be gone. It is a zero-tolerance issue. You are teaching the bears bad habits. You are gone the next week, and someone else will have to deal with it.”
Mr. Bierfeldt and his three-man crew found one of their primary jobs was gathering reports on bear sightings on the trails. “We tried to establish a timeline,” he said. The rubber buckshot and paintballs were intended to associate a little bit of pain with people, so maybe they wouldn’t come back looking for food. “Some bears are conditioned to the harassment,” Mr. Bierfeldt said.
The bear trap was set up on trails where there were children, but Mr. Bierfeldt said the bait inside the trap “was competing with 30 other sites for food. There were a couple of bears that would recognize our vehicle and move off.”
July was the peak month for bear reports, Mr. Bierfeldt said.
“It’s always our peak month,” he said. “It correlates with the breeding season in June and July.
“The bears don’t really need human food, anyway, Mr. Bierfeldt said. There are plenty of apples, blackberries and raspberries. “They’ll hang out in the woods with those food sources available.”
Mr. Bierfeldt and other park officials, including the safety manager, are working on a strategy for next summer’s camping season. The key, he said, is making the public aware. “We’ve got to stress to people they need to keep their sites picked up.”
Park officials are getting out the word on social networks such Facebook as well as the park’s website.
(Contact reporter Rick Miller at email@example.com)