The state Department of Environmental Conservation had quite a battle on its hands this past week.
Not only did the agency have to contend with a wounded, nuisance black bear occupying a residential neighborhood in Albany for two days, it also had its hands full with a public relations problem.
To regular folks, who only encounter bears in zoos or in the storybooks they read their kids, bears are cute. They're furry and cuddly, and they waddle when they walk. When they wander into a neighborhood, they're not seen as a threat, but an attaction. People had fun with it on social media, where the bear had a Twitter handle and a "save the bear" campaign in the works.
But the DEC's difficult and potentially unpopular decision to kill the bear, following an unsuccessful attempt to destroy it before it got to the neighborhood, provides an opportunity to educate the public about real bears, not the bears of our imagination.
To environmental officers, black bears are large, wild animals, capable of destroying property and potentially injuring humans when they wander into populated areas. The DEC's manual for dealing with black bears is 119 pages long.
Black bears wander into traffic, where they can be struck by cars — as this bear was twice in the last few days — and cause accidents.
They are attracted by food sources, including bird feeders and garbage cans, and they have the strength and tenacity to break into garages and camps in order to get to food.
Black bears are designed for eating plants and climbing trees. But adult males can get big, more than 500 pounds, and can stand 6-7 feet tall. A bear in good shape can run more than 30 mph. There have been only seven people injured by black bears in the last 26 years in New York, according to the DEC, including one fatal attack of an infant in 2002.
While they're naturally afraid of humans in the wild, they become more comfortable around them when they share the same space.
Once they've found that foraging through dumpsters is more lucrative than foraging through the forest, it's hard to change their patterns.
So the DEC or some other agency has to get rid of problem bears permanently, either by removing them to a rural area or killing them.
Black bear management has become a serious task in the last decade or so, as a combination of more bears and more human intrusion into their traditional habitats prompted officials to take greater interest in the population and in bear-human interaction.
It's estimated the state has between 6,000 and 9,000 black bears. Last week, the agency released a Black Bear Management Plan for 2014-2024 containing detailed plans on managing the state's growing black bear population. It includes maintaining bear populations at levels that are acceptable to humans, promoting bear hunting and population management, examining ways to manage and reduce human-bear conflicts, and encouraging education about how to discourage bears and their encounters with humans.
Black bears are more than just cute. They’re a potentially serious problem that we must all learn to deal with.
Let's hope AlbanyBear2014 had more of an impact on us than 30 seconds on the local news and a few funny tweets.
To read the DEC’s Black Bear Management Plan, visit: http://www.dec.ny.govdocs/wildlife_pdf/bearplan2014.pdf.