A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Black Bears and Bird Feeders: “Is the Public Even Listening?”

N.H. Fish and Game wonders if the “Something’s Bruin” message is getting lost.

Foolish? Yes it is. Photo courtesy NH Fish & Game Dept.
Okay, show of hands, folks.

Raise your hand if you’ve never heard of N.H. Fish and Game’s advice to put the bird feeders away so you don’t attract hungry black bears.

Thought so. Pretty much everyone has heard the annual early spring message. 

Then why do people continue to ignore the advice? Why do good, decent, smart folks continue to fill the feeders and then are shocked and surprised to wake up and see metal poles bent to the ground, feeders crunched or carried off and the remnants of a hungry black bear’s visit left behind?

The folks at the N.H. Fish and Game Department are wondering the same thing. 

“Is the Public Even Listening?”

For decades, Fish and Game has spread the word through their “Something’s Bruin” public awareness campaign.  It’s a pretty simple message, really. Come springtime, put the feeders away. Clean up the spilled seed.  Secure your birdseed inside.  Keep your garbage inside at night. Don’t leave anything outside that might attract a hungry bear that’s waking up after a long winter’s sleep.

A subtext of the message is “a fed bear is a dead bear.” When black bears become habituated to finding their food from bird feeders and other human sources, the experience informs and bears become bolder. What starts as raiding a feeder becomes raiding a neighborhood of feeders. Then the bear finds a trash can; then two. Then he enters an open garage. Then a screen porch.

What was once a majestic wild black bear becomes dependent on human food sources and develops into a nuisance that’s unafraid of people and ever more emboldened in its quest for food. Ultimately, the emboldened behavior and habits can end in the bear’s demise, either by being shot by an angry landowner or by Fish and Game.

The Something’s Bruin message has worked pretty well for years. But now, Fish and Game folks are wondering if the message is working.

A recent op ed piece by Andrew Timmins, N.H. Fish and Game’s bear project leader suggests that people are not getting the message. In his piece, “Bear and Human Conflicts – A Need for Change,” Timmins wonders, “Is the public even listening anymore? Is our society that self-centered and callous towards the wildlife of our state?”

Managing Bears = Managing People

As bear project leader, you’d think Timmins’ job is all about managing New Hampshire’s black bears.  But honestly, it’s often about managing people’s behavior that affects black bears.

As such, Timmins is on the front lines of bear/human conflicts. And too often he’s put in the position of putting down good, decent, smart black bears that have learned bad behaviors.

Timmins has had to shoot more than his fair share of bears that have become habituated simply because people have not heeded the message that Fish and Game has spread since the mid-1990s: Don’t feed the bears. Inadvertently or intentionally.

Intentional Feeding & Bird Feeders

Don't let this happen to you. If you care about the
black bears, put away the feeders.
Photo courtesy NH Fish & Game Dept.
At one end of the spectrum are people who are intentionally feeding bears. Hard to believe people would be so stupid, but unfortunately, a small number of people actually feed bears. Since 2006, Fish and Game rules prohibit this activity and Department officials will first warn the perpetrators, followed by a summons, if necessary.

In his op ed, Timmins mentions one repeat offender in North Conway who has been intentionally feeding bears for years, despite warnings. Bears in this neighborhood have been breaking into motor vehicles, garages, sheds and killing livestock. Fish and Game has had to kill two bears here in one week.

In southwestern New Hampshire, Timmins told me, one resident in Stoddard has also been repeatedly warned to stop feeding bears.

At the other end of the scale are people who continue feeding birds, despite repeated visits by black bears and years of advice by Fish and Game to stop bird-feeding in the spring.

A Reasonable Resolution?

And when a bear comes along to raid a feeder, sometimes the errant homeowner is readily transformed into “wildlife photographer,” proudly posting his or her bear photos on Facebook.

“The next time you are reviewing a friend's photos of a sow with cute cubs lying next to a pile of feed in their back yard, think about the consequences for the bear and her cubs, who are learning behaviors that may result in their future death,” Timmins writes in his op ed. “When you see a dumpster with muddy paw prints on the side and garbage strewn through the woods, think long and hard about that image. Is that how you picture New Hampshire's majestic black bear? The next time you hear about Fish and Game biologist climbing to the top of a tree to remove cubs because the sow was shot at an unsecured chicken pen, ask yourself if that was a reasonable resolution to a conflict.”

Good advice.

As much as you love the birds, they’ll do just fine without the bird seed. You can always see and hear the birds in the neighborhood. Put the feeders back up in winter when the bears are asleep.

‘Til then, do your part and help keep our black bears wild.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Staring into the Eyes of the Eastern Coyote

A complicated story and a complicated canine.

It was a bright Saturday afternoon in March when my son and I were driving home from a fairly remote spot in Hancock. We were on our way back from pulling a disk of images from my game camera. 

We turned a corner and saw standing in the road a light blonde canine staring back at us. For the few seconds that it stood in the road, we could see it was big, maybe over 50 pounds, with front legs tight together and ears thick with fur.

And then it turned and confidently strode into the woods, brisk but unhurried.
“Was that a dog?” Ben asked.

“Nope,” I said. “That was a coyote. A nice, healthy one. And a great view of it.”
When we got home and checked the game camera images, I saw more coyotes staring at me. It didn’t take long for me to see that the camera had photographed three coyotes over the past few weeks. There were shots of all three together, and many more images of each individual.

Tawny, Scruffy and Healthy

After a few more weeks of setting up the camera at this spot, I got to know each coyote little. I could see their individual characteristics, a little personality and patterns of behavior.

There’s the tawny one, generally shy, who stopped appearing in late-February. I’m not sure, but I theorize that Tawny could be a female who’s now with pups in the den.

There’s the scruffy one, who’s smaller than the other two, with a bad coat and loss of fur at the base of its tail. Scruffy’s problematic coat could be mange, malnutrition or both. Scruffy seems to take risks, doesn’t have rigid timing patterns and appears less confident than the others. Maybe I’m wrong, but Scruffy could be an 11-month old who has remained with the parents as a pack.

And finally there’s the healthy one. This coyote is bigger than the others, appears at predictable times and seems cautious and confident. Healthy has a nice, shiny coat, a bushy tail, and a black streak between its bright yellowish eyes. I think Healthy is the elder male, and he is very handsome.

The Advantage of Crust

My camera can’t follow this pack everywhere, but if it could, it might show their den, typically just a small hole in the ground that goes back into a larger chamber. On a cold mid-winter night, you might find all three in there. By April or May, it could also be holding Tawny’s litter of four to eight pups.

The past few weeks before snow-melt have been tough on coyotes. This omnivore has few dining options during a good chunk of winter. But by late-winter, the snow gives coyotes an advantage. This winter was a good example. The snowpack of 1 to 2 feet can form a crust that coyotes can navigate easily, but deer cannot. While deer are near the end of their rope by late-March, coyotes – whether single or in a pack – can take down even the healthiest buck.

I saw this recently when a neighbor showed me a deer that had just been killed by coyotes. This healthy buck had a puncture wound in the neck, and its back end had been eaten out.

The thought of coyotes killing deer is just too much for some deer-hunters to bear. A vocal set of deer hunters say killing more coyotes will help the deer herd, thus improving the hunters’ chances of tagging a deer in the fall.

Despite the good intentions of helping both deer and hunters, this misguided approach doesn’t work. Coyotes that dodge the bullet tend to respond to increased mortality by having larger litters.

Cold Eyes from a Postcard

We’ve learned plenty about Eastern coyotes in the past few decades, and there’s plenty more to learn. The Eastern is a lot bigger than its western cousin. We know it hunts in packs, though not as often or as organized as wolves.

And we know that the Eastern coyote is part-wolf (some refer to it as coywolf). We know it appeared in New Hampshire in the mid-1940s.

This point about the Eastern coyote’s emergence into New England touches home with me by way of a 1953 postcard that’s tacked to the kitchen wall at my family’s old camp in Cherryfield, Maine. It shows a Maine game warden inspecting the carcass of a big canine. On the back, the caption says that this was the “first timber wolf shot in Maine in over 100 years.”

Sure, maybe so. Or maybe not. Also possible that the mysterious canine was actually one of the first coyotes to be seen in that part of Maine. Part coyote, part wolf. A complicated story and a complicated canine.

The eyes of the coyote in that postcard are lifeless and cold. Nothing like the bright, alert eyes of the blonde, healthy coyote that glanced at me and my son a few weeks ago. And nothing like the eyes of Tawny, Scruffy and Healthy, whom I’ve come to admire over the past few weeks.

I hope to get to know these coyotes a bit more in the coming months.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.