- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007


Mark Ternent squeezes his bulky frame into the narrow opening of a bear den and shines a flashlight into the eyes of a 200-pound female. Two black bear cubs are suckling, and their mother looks back at Mr. Ternent, alert but relaxed. It is early March, and these bears won’t come out of hibernation for six weeks.

The wildlife biologist shoots a tranquilizer dart into the mother’s rump, but the dart goes into fat, not muscle, slowing absorption into her blood. Mr. Ternent waits 20 minutes, but she is still awake, so he shoots a second dart. This one does the trick; she is completely out of it.

Mr. Ternent then goes to work, dragging the bears from their den.

By the end of March, he will have visited about 30 bear dens across the state, tagging, weighing and taking the vital signs of hibernating mothers and their offspring as part of an effort to gauge the health and size of Pennsylvania’s bruin population.

As caretaker of the state’s 15,000 black bears, Mr. Ternent must figure out the optimal ratio of bears to people. That number will determine how many bears need to be killed by hunters to keep the population under control.

Black bears sleep deeply when they are hibernating but wake up to give birth and tend to their young. They can be roused easily.

Bears are not a problem in more remote areas of the state. But here in the increasingly populous Pocono Mountains, complaints about nuisance bears are rising, especially among recent arrivals from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, who tend to have little experience with the animals.

“They see a bear in their back yard and they panic, thinking that the bears are going to take a couple of their children,” said Tim Conway, an information and education supervisor with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Pennsylvania has had perhaps 20 bear attacks over the past 30 years, none of them fatal or even serious. But black bears have killed people in other states, and can inflict significant damage on crops and livestock.

Black bear encounters are rising in Pennsylvania and in many other Eastern states because the species is increasing in number at a time when more of their habitat is being lost to development.

It is such a topic of concern that bear biologists from across the Eastern United States and Canada are meeting in West Virginia next month to discuss ways to manage conflict between bears and people.

“I think most states are becoming more aggressive in managing these populations, and it’s a direct result of human-wildlife encounters,” said Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He calls the Poconos and northern New Jersey, where bears have made a dramatic rebound, the “epicenter” of black-bear interaction with humans.

In New Jersey, rising complaints about bears prompted officials in 2003 to allow black-bear hunting for the first time in more than three decades. But last year’s hunt was canceled amid protests from anti-hunting groups, and New Jersey’s top environmental official said nonlethal ways of dealing with bears need to be explored.

In Pennsylvania, hunting has long been used to control the bear population, which quadrupled in the 1980s and ‘90s. As a result of an extended rifle season and the introduction of an archery season, the number of bears killed through hunting has risen from 1,796 in 1996 to 3,122 last year.

Now Mr. Ternent, the bear biologist, is aiming to come up with a bear population objective for various parts of the state, taking into account factors such as human population density, forest cover and the availability of food.

Among other things, he wants to know how many cubs are out there, the ratio of males to females and the condition of the mothers. He will use the information to estimate the bear population.

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