Bear sightings increase as drought worsens

'We have a bear on our porch' becomes a suburban distress call

August 15, 1999|By New York Times News Service

NEW PALTZ, N.Y. -- John Bradley has stared into the face of the worst drought in recent history. From the bone-dry stream beds and parched trails of the Shawangunk Mountains, something is staring back. It is black and furry and has inch-long claws.

Bradley, a management consultant who owns 2,500 acres in southern Ulster County, about two hours from Manhattan, is continually on his cell phone these days. The calls are from his tenants, panicked weekenders confronting black bears on the porches and lawns of their cabins, and even in their living rooms.

"John, we have a bear on our porch," came the recent call from David Rockwell, the restaurant designer, who rents a log cabin on Bradley's land. A dutiful landlord, Bradley scooped up a gravel rake and some dirty shirts and ran to the scene. He uses the smelly clothing to distract the bears while an escape is made, in a technique he calls "drop and run."

In the New York region, the problems of the drought extend beyond dry wells and dead corn. Record heat and little rain have withered berry bushes -- an important summer food supply for bears -- and dried up streams on the mountaintops. Park rangers and naturalists say this has forced bears, and even rattlesnakes, down from the mountains in search of food and water.

'Movement of snakes'

"We've had movement of snakes," said Tim Sullivan, supervising forest ranger for the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, which closed 200 miles of hiking trails last week to avert forest fires. "Raccoons, they're traveling. Bears aren't any different, because moist food is not that abundant."

A steady increase in the bear population has made the problem worse, said Heinz Meng, a biology professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "The blackberries have dried up," he said, "and the bears are looking for other sources of food."

Bears are popping up throughout the region. Bob Eriksen, the supervising wildlife biologist for New Jersey's Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, said nuisance complaints about bears had reached a record high this year: 1,200 so far, compared with 892 for last year. New Jersey has had about 25 bear break-ins this year, compared with 18 last year.

"It's just a result of bears' living in close proximity to people" rather than drought conditions, Eriksen said, but he added that if the drought continued, "It will be a problem because the food crop will be reduced."

Changing way of life

In the Shawangunks, the bear migration has changed life for Bradley and his six tenants on the exclusive Awosting Reserve. Bradley has spotted seven bears near the houses in the last month. The last time he saw a bear below the mountain range just one was during the severe drought of 1964.

The bear Rockwell spotted had worked its way to the home of another tenant, a Wall Street executive, by the time Bradley arrived. A cub about the size of a golden retriever, it was eating from a bird feeder.

"When I approached, it got up and walked directly through his front door," Bradley recalled. "I'm yelling, when it exits and leaps over the side of the porch."

A few weeks ago, the sound of knocking brought Bradley, in the buff, from his swimming pool. In his driveway, a mature bear was lifting the lid of the shed for his emergency generator. Bradley grabbed dirty socks and got ready for the "drop and run." The bear scooted eight feet up a tree and made off over a fence.

The bears are less like ravaging Huns, and more like thoughtless guests who turn weekend visits into protracted stays. They returned repeatedly to the cabin of the Wall Street executive, rustling through his garbage, licking the grease off his barbecue grill and munching from his bird feeder as he lay in a nearby hammock. "I finally drew myself up to my full height and told them to scram," said the executive, who insisted on anonymity.

Richard Henry, a big-game biologist in the New Paltz office of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, says the rock ridge above the Awosting Reserve is part of a "travel corridor" for bears, extending from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. While there are about 5,000 bears in New York state, no one has been hurt by one in 40 years.

But Rockwell's tenants, Daniel Sullivan and Alysa Wishingrad, said that they felt no pity for the hairy and disfranchised. They had survived the ultimate encounter: A mature black bear had charged at them full-tilt, dust rising behind its paws.

They were by Awosting Lake, a shady area blessed with rare surviving berries, when two bucks bolted out of the forest, making a sound like a speeding train.

"The deer are running this fast for a reason," Wishingrad, who is eight and a half months pregnant, recalled musing.

The mature black bear -- capable of hitting 30 mph -- was right behind them.

"We were falling all over each other, running and making noise," said Sullivan, an executive recruiter for Internet companies. They even broke into the soccer song "Ole! Ole! Ole!"

Luckily, the bear peeled off. The drought, however, continues.

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