AR-News: NY Times Op Ed - The New Bear in Town
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Atrak at aol.com
Mon Dec 8 23:57:24 EST 2003
The New York Times
December 9, 2003
The New Bear in Town
By CHARLES SIEBERT
ne day soon we will be reading about a bear sighting in New York City. A
Manhattan bear is a distinct possibility, should the prospective rogue prove to be
as venturesome as those coyotes who have been observed crossing various
bridges into Gotham and dodging late-night taxis on their way toward Central Park.
Nor can one rule out an ursine visit to Brooklyn, although this would require
a rare Two-Bridge or Bridge-and-Tunnel Bear. No, the initial encounter is most
likely to occur in the Bronx, that borough being contiguous with the
mainland's Eastern corridor, where the black bear has staged such a remarkable
comeback — some biologists estimate the bear population to be as high as 3,300 in
northwest New Jersey alone — that the state yesterday opened its first sanctioned
bear hunt in 33 years.
I imagine our lone Bronx bear hiding by day in the New York Botanical
Garden's Hemlock Grove, one of the few remaining tracts of natural uncut woodland in
New York City, and then making a late-night stop at a McDonald's trash bin
before finally being drawn — by both scent and sensibility — to the bear
enclosure at the Bronx Zoo. His arrival there would reflect the awkwardness of the
situation that we and our wild cohabitants in the Eastern United States now find
ourselves in: a free-roaming bear staring at the ones we cage in order to
best represent their presumably imperiled state.
A deep disquiet attends the solace we take from hearing of the wild's
re-emergence within our civil environs: white-tailed deer, coyotes, black bears, even
bobcats. Their presence seems, at first, to engender a kind of reprieve, as
though we've finally arrived at a truce with our wild counterparts.
The actual story is more complex and less idyllic. With the steady shift over
the past century of agriculture to the Midwest and the Plains, along with the
replacement of wood heat with coal, oil and gas, the East Coast's forests
have, by and large, been allowed to flourish. And within them have returned many
of the animals we long ago assumed had been permanently displaced. This
change, in tandem with the spread of suburbia into those same reforested regions,
has brought two burgeoning populations (animal and human) face to face. And
this, of course, is where the trouble begins — where our romanticization of the
wild gives way to thornier questions about how best to broker the peace with it.
For some recently restored predators in our midst, the peregrine falcon, for
example, the reinstatement process remains an all-around feel-good story. To a
falcon — a creature built to hover, both literally and figuratively, above
the fray — our most audacious spires provide ideal perches and nesting places.
Some of the city's most deeply entrenched and opportunistic wild cohabitants,
meanwhile (rats and pigeons), provide the falcon an abundant food source, one
an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers are happy to part with.
When it comes to a large, wingless, territorial creature like a bear,
however, things quickly become more complicated. A recent study of the black bears
living in and around developed parts of the Sierra Nevada has shown that they
readily become inveterate garbage pickers. The fast-food trash bin, in fact, has
proved to be such a consistent and abundant food source that these bears have
stopped hibernating altogether, have switched from their natural daytime
hunting schedule to an "after hours" foraging routine, and are now beginning to
show signs of obesity. Many have been found by day sleeping off their binges
beneath city trees.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, black bear breaking-and-entering incidents have
nearly doubled in the last five years, rising to 57 so far in 2003 from 29 in
1998. There has been, as well, a steady surge of nuisance complaints: bears
rummaging through campsites, attacking livestock, raiding bird feeders and
beehives, and threatening pets. In 1999, police and wildlife officials euthanized four
bears; last year, they killed 35. Two attacks on humans were also reported,
and though neither resulted in serious injury, state officials finally felt
compelled to react.
In July, the New Jersey Fish and Game Council approved a hunt limited to the
area roughly defined by Hunterdon, Morris, Passaic, Sussex and Warren
Counties, all in the northwest part of the state. The decision was not without
controversy. Specialists called in by the state's environmental commissioner were far
from unanimous in their support. Some said the rising bear population merited
a limited yearly hunt that could be sustained indefinitely. Others argued
that the state's bear census was unreliable and that the hunt should be postponed
until further studies could be conducted and other options explored. Still,
the commissioner ultimately decided to back the council's decision, as did a
reluctant Gov. James E. McGreevy, a Democrat who had won the backing of
environmental groups in part by promising to protect the state's bears.
Part of the rationale for going ahead with the hunt was that it was better to
designate the black bear a game animal than a public nuisance. Otherwise, as
one hunt supporter from Millville, N.J., said at a public hearing last summer,
the authorities would be pressured to exterminate bears. "Bears will be seen
as vermin," she said, "and I don't want to see that. I think it is a
Killing a wild animal to secure either our safety or sustenance (bear meat
has been likened to a somewhat stringy but flavorful steak) could be described
as a natural extension of our own territorial instincts. Killing an animal in
order to preserve its magnificence, however — to restore it to its idealized
status in our minds — somehow seems behavior as cockeyed as that of a
Hunting has become its own kind of endangered species, a long-ago ritualized
form of recreation (not to mention a hefty source of state revenue). But as a
method of animal-population control and containment it is a shot in the dark.
Some wildlife experts and bear biologists who were called in to examine New
Jersey's situation noted that the hunt would eliminate only about 500 bears —
about as many as were born the previous winter — and therefore make little or no
dent in the total population.
It's unclear, too, that by reducing the number of bears we reduce the number
of fractious encounters with them. New York State has an estimated 5,000 to
6,000 black bears. Though the state has far more habitat than New Jersey, and
900 black bears were killed in the annual state-sanctioned hunt last year, New
York was still the only state in the region to have a fatal bear attack in
Interestingly, even New Jersey's hunters seem to be expressing ambivalence.
The state made 10,000 permits available, but just over 6,000 hunters applied, a
response that seems to be attributable, in part, to the high degree of risk
involved in stalking bear — as opposed to deer, pheasant or duck — and to the
need for the sort of expertise that, after a 33-year hiatus, relatively few
sportsmen have. In fact, as part of the application process, the state held
mandatory seminars to teach applicants bear hunting techniques.
But why not then make similar efforts to educate nonhunting citizens,
especially those who now find themselves living on the front lines with bears? In
truth, there aren't a lot of alternatives. Efforts to tranquilize and transport
bears were abandoned because no other states wanted them. Chemical castration
and contraception is, by all accounts, still years away from viability.
Still, simple gestures on our part can minimize the blurring of bear and
human territory. Bear attacks are territorial, not predatory. And the fact is that
when left to their own devices, wild bear populations are naturally
self-limiting. Females are able to reproduce only when their natural habitat provides
enough food. Older males, meanwhile, routinely kill interlopers that invade
their territory. But to dissuade those bears that become overly reliant on human
food sources, people could learn to keep feeders and garbage bins out of
reach. For its part, the state should require bear-proof enclosures around
restaurant trash Dumpsters. It should also step up enforcement of a new law that makes
the feeding of bears illegal.
As for those bears that prove resistant to all efforts at re-education,
selective euthanasia by professional sharpshooters is surely a preferable
alternative to the invariably messy exploits of amateur hunters set loose among an
indeterminate number of free-roaming bears.
New Jersey had in fact originally set funds for a program intended to enforce
the feeding law, to teach residents how to coexist with bears (as millions of
people across the United States do daily without incident) and to deal with
problem bears through the use of aversive conditioning methods like chasing
them with dogs or using pepper spray. The money for that program, however, was
cut from the budget two years ago, and the state's department of environmental
protection was forced to make do with a much more modest educational campaign.
Civilization has somehow brought us to the point where more humans are living
closer to more wild animals than ever before. We have, in a sense, forced
ourselves to become naturalists within the very environment we long thought would
preclude such a role. Only by being better keepers of our nest can we keep
its wild antidote nearby. Only by better marking and tending to the edges of our
world can we help the bears hew more closely to theirs: hovering, if not
above, then at least safely outside the urban fray.
Charles Siebert is author of "Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral" and the
forthcoming "A Man After His Own Heart: A True Story."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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