CAPITAL REGION -- Take down your bird feeder -- or a bear might.
Reports of bear activity have spiked across the Adirondack Region, including in Saratoga County, where state officials have counted over 30 bear nuisance reports since May and around 20 reports in Wilton alone.
On Friday morning, Wilton resident Marcia Lyon snapped a picture of a black bear in broad daylight snooping around yards and walking down the middle of Hopeful Lane, a suburban road in a neighborhood near McGregor Links Country Club, about 5 miles north of Saratoga Springs.
Pictures of downed bird feeders and at least one video of a large bear ripping a feeder down at night have been posted to Facebook in recent weeks, as bears search for food outside their natural habitats, where food sources have been depleted.
In recent days, the town of Wilton posted a warning on its website from the Department of Environmental Conservation: "DEC is shifting from an education mode to an enforcement mode" to deal with nuisance bears and the humans who attract them. Residents of Wilton who have bird feeders or other bear attractants out will be given a written warning. If they don't heed the warning, they can be subject to a $250 fine and up to 15 days in jail.
In the Aidrondack High Peaks, forest rangers and the DEC have warned hikers about bears seeking out humans around Marcy Dam and Slant Rock Lean-To, a popular high-elevation campsite on the way up Mount Marcy.
At Saranac Lake Islands campground on Route 3, reports have come in about bears frequenting campsites messy with food and other items of interest to hungry bears.
“It’s been a growing problem this summer,” said Zoe Smith, director of the Wilderness Conservation Society’s Adirondack Program, which follows bear activity and provides a special bear steward at busy trail heads.
All told in DEC Region 5 – which covers Saratoga, Warren, Hamilton, Fulton and Essex counties and stretches north to the Canadian border – there have been more than 300 nuisance bear reports since May, according to Jim Stickles, a big game biologist with DEC. The encounters have cost some bears their lives.
The majority of those incidents – and all of the reports from Saratoga County – were classified as level three, when bears roam into yards and get into garbage cans or bird feeders. Nearly 50 incidents were considered to be of the most serious kind, which involve bears damaging or breaking into property or showing aggressive behavior toward humans.
In all of 2017 in Region 5, there were 134 bear nuisance reports. The number of reports was around 150 in 2016, which at the time was an uptick from previous years, according to a 2016 article in the Adirondack Explorer, a news magazine that covers the Adirondack Park.
Upticks in bear activity frequently coincide with dry spring weather, which limits bears’ natural food sources, forcing them to seek sustenance at campsites and in backyards. Once they have been successful at scavenging in populated areas, the bears are more likely to come back for more.
“When food sources are limited, animals are willing to take bigger risks,” Stickles said.
DEC advises people living near bear territory to keep bird feeders inside during summer months, limit the time garbage is left outside, keep pets and their food inside and keep grills clean and away from the house.
“The problem isn’t the bear. The problem is people are leaving food outside,” Stickles said. “Usually, the bear will move on. If it’s not getting food, it’s usually moving on.”
Each time a bear wanders into a neighborhood or approaches a campsite, it raises risks for bear and human alike. If the bear is successful in getting food, it is more likely to repeat the behavior, potentially escalating to more brazen and dangerous behavior.
Bears that have broken into homes or demonstrated dangerous behavior are killed by DEC officers. So far this year, DEC has euthanized 10 bears in Region 5, up from five last year, Stickles said. He said most of the killings have been in Hamilton County.
“The concern is that there is more bear-human interaction on years like this,” Stickles said, referring to the dry spring weather. “Once habituated to people, they are less fearful of humans and willing to take more bold and brazen risks. We just don’t want things to escalate.”
Michelle Cardinale, of Moreau, was driving her son Cameron to school in late-May when they came across a black bear on Old Bend Road. She said it was the first time she had seen a bear in the area. She said the bear seemed baffled by the car and seemed interested in them for a moment before setting off into the woods.
“Typically, we see deer and turtles, and all of a sudden, we come around the corner and, oh my, that’s not normal,” she said of spotting the black bear in May. “He was right there. It was evident he was not very familiar with cars – he was a little guy.”
Cardinale, who works as a real estate agent, said there has been construction and development pushing further into the woods in recent years, further into bear territory.
“We are in their homes, so I get it,” Cardinale said of the bears making their presence more known this year.
Shelby Schneider, who lives in Wilton, said she has been following the wave of bear sightings in her neighborhood on the Lake Elizabeth Families Facebook page. On a regular basis, residents are posting pictures and videos of bears walking the streets or knocking down bird feeders. She said that, while many of her neighbors have taken down their bird feeders, they remain standing in other yards.
"Many, but not enough, and it's less garbage than it is bird feed," she said. "No one should be using bird feeders at all; it's the only way to make them go away."
Wilton Town Supervisor Art Johnson said he has been in touch with DEC about the heightened bear activity in the northern Saratoga County town, which has posted warnings and advice on its Facebook page and told residents to contact DEC about any bear activity.
He said the bear activity in Wilton – which Stickles said is likely multiple bears – has been focused around the neighborhoods off of Northern Pines Road, which runs north to south between the Northway and Route 9.
In the backcountry, hikers and campers are required to use bear-resistant canisters to carry food, garbage and toiletries on overnight trips in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness – a requirement Zoe Smith, of the conservationist group, said will extend to Dix and Giant wildernesses and the new Boreas Ponds tract under an amended management plan for the wilderness areas.
Hikers or campers that come face-to-face with bears are advised to make noise with air horns or by banging pots and pans together to scare the bear away. Smith said the Wilderness Conservation Society has sponsored bear stewards, who give out bear safety advice at trail heads and have spare bear canisters on hand, since 2002. But every year, more new hikers make their way to the Adirondacks, so the education must not let up, she said.
“It’s a continual cycle of education,” she said. “Even with online resources, we find people still show up without a canister or they don’t know how to use them.”
Smith said she hopes their bear steward will be on the ground through Columbus Day weekend. Stickles said bear activity should be expected to continue into the fall.