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The bear is a classic and enduring American symbol for the benevolent wild. We tend to think well of bears, viewing them as large, powerful, stubborn creatures capable of mischief but somehow vaguely humorous and, like defensive tackles, essentially good-hearted. However, when it comes to direct dealings with bears, our behavior has not been especially benign. For better than three centuries we have been hunting them, trapping them, setting dogs on them, clearing and leveling their natural habitat. With the notable exception of grizzlies, bears have held up under this harassment better than many less conspicuous, more mobile creatures. Although there are fewer bears in the U.S. than there were when Europeans first came to the continent, they still remain reasonably numerous. Bears now exist in population pockets scattered throughout most of their former range, which was just about all of the wooded parts of the country.
Bears have suffered from what is called civilization, but they are outstanding exceptions to the generally held (but only sometimes true) notion that people and wild beasts are incompatible. Take the most abundant U.S. species, the black bear. There is little evidence that black bears shy away from civilized areas or that, like good Sierra Clubbers, they find them psychologically, morally and esthetically repugnant. To the contrary, given any encouragement or even tolerance, black bears tend to make a beeline for settlements and prosper there until they are scragged or shooed away by frightened residents. Where this scragging and shooing process has been suspended, as in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, black bears have lumbered in from all over the woods to live cheek by jowl, snout by Winnebago, with people.
An even better place than the somewhat artificial public sanctuaries to observe the natural capacity black bears have for coping with civilization is the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. The well-populated Poconos are within 100 miles of New York City, in fact within half a day's drive of more than a quarter of the population of the entire U.S. Along with other recreationists, the Poconos attract a formidable number of hunters. Nevertheless, there are upward of 600 black bears living in these mountains. Collectively, they may be the biggest and most reproductively energetic black bears in the world.
Much of the mountainous areas of northern Pennsylvania, hill country that stretches across the state from New Jersey to Ohio, is very good bear country, supporting an estimated population of more than 2,500 animals. Tucked in between the turnpikes, strip mines and factory towns are a lot of uninhabited Appalachian ridges and ravines that offer bears suitable places for denning, rearing cubs and feeding. The foraging is excellent, the forested highlands producing tons of acorn mast, berries and other edibles for the omnivorous bears. The climate—sharp but not extended winters and coolish, moist summers—also suits the hibernation, mating, birthing and feeding requirements of bears.
The Poconos have all these advantages for bears plus some special ones. Unlike the other Pennsylvania mountains, the Poconos were glaciated. As a result, they are studded with little lakes and ponds and swampy areas. This makes for good black bear habitat. They are tough, durable creatures and can take a lot of cold, ice, starvation, bee stings and even buckshot, but they cannot take much heat and sun. Their thick black coats absorb heat, and prolonged exposure to hot sun can be very uncomfortable for them, even fatal. Therefore, in the summer bears retire during the day, and a favorite place for doing this is a bit of shaded mud or water. The highland sphagnum bogs of the Poconos make fine bear wallows and also produce a lot of succulent bear food.
For some of the same reasons—pleasant climate, attractive, well-watered mountains, nice forests—in the 20th century people have become as fond of the Poconos as bears presumably always have been. The mountains are a popular resort and recreation area, heavily used by metropolitan residents of eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. Something like six million visitors a year descend upon the Poconos to get a breath of fresh air, to cool off, to hunt, to fish, to play games, to camp. They buy lots, build cabins, chalets and A-frames and construct mobile-home foundations.
That an appreciable number of bears continued to share the Poconos with recreationists and permanent residents has long been common knowledge. Every fall hunters killed about 100 bears in the Poconos. (This year for the second year in a row there will be no Pennsylvania bear-hunting season—more on the reason why later.) However, there was very little specific information available about the bear community, whether the population was declining or increasing, what effects the hunting, land development and general human use of the area was having on it. In hopes of amassing systematic data about the bear situation, a study involving Penn State academics and the Pennsylvania game commission was initiated 11 years ago. Funding and interest were sporadic for a time, but during the past four years the study has been pursued vigorously and has concentrated on the Pocono area. Currently the principal field researcher is 26-year-old Gary Alt, who grew up on a dairy farm on the fringes of the Poconos and became involved in bear studies as a graduate student at Penn State. Now employed by the game commission, he is continuing his research into the status and life-style of the Pocono bears.
Alt is an exceptionally engaging and exuberant man, even for a wildlife researcher. Alt says he often lies awake at night wondering where his bears are and what they are doing, and wakes up most mornings thinking how lucky he is to be earning a living consorting with bears. Officially, Alt's bears are those that live in 1,000 square miles of what is designated as the Pocono Bear Study Project. However, as a practical matter most of his efforts thus far have been concentrated in 200 square miles of Pike County in the northeastern corner of the Poconos.
The original objective of the study was to identify as many individual bears as possible and thus get a rough idea of the size and composition of the population. Much of Alt's time is spent live-trapping bears with snares, or in big culvert sections converted into box traps set in feeding areas and along game trails. Once caught and tranquilized, the bears are measured and their age determined by extracting a tooth for examination. Each bear is then assigned an identifying number that is tattooed on the inside of its upper lip. A metal ear tag is also affixed. Colored streamers go with the tag, making the bear readily identifiable in the field for as long as the ribbons last. Finally, to the extent such expensive equipment is available, selected bears are rigged with heavy leather collars into which are built small radio transmitters. For a year or more the transmitters emit a pulsing sound signal that can be picked up on a mobile receiver. The movement of the bears equipped with radio telemetric devices can be closely and continually monitored and tracked either from light aircraft or surface vehicles. During the course of the study project, 342 individual bears have been trapped and marked in the Poconos. Based on this sample, Alt now estimates that approximately 250 bears regularly use some part of Pike County.
Until recently the study was principally concerned with who-are-they questions. The second, more sophisticated, what-are-they-doing phase is only just commencing, but enough information has been accumulated to suggest that in the Poconos there is a bear community considerably different from those in other parts of the country. For example, there is the matter of winter dennings. Alt says bear researchers in other areas report that their bears den up tighter than a drum come early winter. In the Poconos, only one class of bears, adult females who are either pregnant or mature enough to bear cubs, crawl into dens and hibernate throughout the winter. Females with cubs (family groups remain together for about a year and a half) usually do not hibernate but remain active through the winter, only occasionally and briefly laying up in temporary shelters. Adult males do not so much den as nest, raking together piles of leaves and grass, then sacking out on them more or less in the open. "Some of the males will remain on their nests for three or four months," says Alt, "but others will get up now and then to wander around. None appear to be in deep hibernation. If you come close they will jump up immediately. When they get up, the first thing they do is urinate—gallons, it seems like. Then they start moving. They may travel for miles and never come back to the nest site."