Dry summer means more encounters with hungry bears

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Colorado Hunter magazine

For more information about hunting in Northwest Colorado as well as stories from local residents, see the 2012 Colorado Hunter Magazine. Click here to see the e-edition.

OLD FORGE, N.Y. (AP) — With their normal summer diet of greens and berries shriveled by summer heat or drought in many spots nationwide, hungry bears are rummaging through garbage, ripping through screens and crawling into cars in search of sustenance.

In the Adirondack Mountain village of Old Forge in northern New York state, a black bear clawed through the wall of a candy store on Main Street last week; another one locked itself in a minivan and shredded the interior in a frantic struggle to escape, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"We've been here 17 years and never had a problem with bears," said Roslyn Starer, who runs the Candy Cottage in Old Forge with her son, Larry. "But it's been so dry the normal foods in the woods just aren't growing. So they're coming into town."

Starer came to the shop one morning to find a bear had ripped a big hole in the wall. "If it had gone much further it would have gotten into the shop, and the damage would have been devastating," she said.

This summer's bear troubles aren't isolated to New York. In eastern Kentucky, the U.S. Forest Service closed two campgrounds for a weekend at the end of July because of bears raiding picnic baskets and coolers. Biologists blamed the drought-related berry shortage.

In Colorado, where drought has dried up the chokecherries and serviceberries bears rely on, a bear and three cubs broke into more than a dozen cars in Aspen looking for food in June.

A surveillance camera in a candy store in Estes Park, Colo., showed a bear making seven trips inside for candy in 15 minutes. A bear that broke into occupied homes there last month was put down because it posed a danger to people, one official said, noting the drought has made the intelligent animals even more resourceful in finding food.

Weather-related bear problems are nothing new, as natural food supplies vary from year to year depending on rainfall and other factors. But this summer has been a particularly busy one, wildlife biologists in New York say.

"This has been an interesting year for bears, especially in the Catskills," said Jeremy Hurst, a big game biologist with the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation, referring to the mountain range north of New York City. "In multiple communities, bears have gotten into people's homes, in some cases even when people were at home. Half a dozen to a dozen bears have been euthanized. More have been trapped and relocated."

While property has been damaged by foraging bears, no human injuries have been reported in New York this year.

In the Catskills last month, there were three times as many serious bear issues such as home and vehicle break-ins as there were in the same period last year, Hurst said.

"Typically, complaints of bear damage peak in late spring, but this year, the frequency of bear complaints picked up strongly with the drought in July," he said.

The Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University reported Tuesday that so far, 2012 has been the hottest year on record for the 12-state region. While conditions in the Northeast weren't as dry as some parts of the country, there has been moderate drought in parts of upstate New York.

Bears typically turn to hard foods such as acorns and beechnuts in the fall to bulk up for winter. Paul Curtis, a wildlife specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension and associate professor at Cornell University, said a cold snap in April that damaged a lot of fruit tree buds also may have affected acorns and other wild nuts. That could mean trouble for corn farmers, with bears fattening up in their fields, Curtis said.

In Vermont, Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Forrest Hammond said food scarcity due to the dry summer was contributing to bear complaints. The department has recommended that farmers bring in their corn crops as soon as possible.

"The farmers are going to have a tougher time with bears," Hammond said.

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