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Bear numbers rising east of Mississippi

June 16, 2009 at 07:58 AM

HARLAN, Ky. (AP) — Bobby Koger was deer hunting on a Kentucky hillside when a black bear gave him the fright of his life.

A 300-pound animal, apparently unhappy that an intruder was on his turf, came charging and didn’t stop until Koger raised his .50 caliber muzzleloading rifle and fired from point-blank range. A hunting companion who witnessed the attack from a distance also shot the bruin, which wheeled, ran a short distance and collapsed.

Conservation officers concluded that they fired in self-defense at a bear that had lost its natural fear of humans.

With black bear populations rising, run-ins have become almost commonplace — more than 15,000 in the past year in states east of the Mississippi River according to a survey of state wildlife agencies.

Canadian bear researcher Hank Hristienko, who conducted the survey in January, found that 18 Eastern states were seeing more encounters with bears.

Most encounters involve hungry bears raiding backyard bird feeders or toppling garbage bins, but sometimes they’re harrowing. In a 2006 attack, a 210-pound male bear killed a 6-year-old girl and mauled her 2-year-old brother as well as her mother who tried to fend off the animal. The attack occurred during a family outing in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest.

Some bears have become brazen, dining beneath backyard fruit trees, raiding pet food bowls, even chasing campers. At a park near Prestonsburg, Ky., last year, a bear held tourists at bay inside a cabin until rangers arrived to chase it away.

They have also become road hazards. Wildlife agencies reported more than 1,300 struck by automobiles in 2008.

The U.S. bear population more than doubled between 1989 and 2006, rising from 165,000 to over 350,000, according to The International Association of Bear Research and Management, a bear conservation nonprofit that takes a periodic census of the animals. The Eastern states alone now have about 163,000 bears, according to findings Hristienko released in May.

Biologists with the same group found nearly 20,000 reported conflicts between bears and humans in 37 states in a 2006 survey of state wildlife agencies.

More recently, in the Eastern region alone, 18 states reported an increase in bear-human conflicts over the past year, Hristienko found in his survey of wildlife agencies.

Tennessee reported the largest increase, up from 300 to 1,000 over the past 10 years. That was followed by New York, which went from 587 to 1,127, and New Jersey, which jumped from 691 encounters to 1,117.

Frank van Manen, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist and president of the International Association for Bear Research and Management, said it’s not that the bears are becoming more aggressive. Instead, he said, bear populations are skyrocketing under state bans or limits on bear hunting.

“What we have seen throughout the eastern United States is quite a phenomenal range expansion of the black bear,” van Manen said. “With the range expansion, the likelihood of the encounters is increasing.”

Black bears are the most common bear species in the U.S. with measurable populations in most states. Their larger cousin, the grizzly, is limited to the northwestern states and Alaska. They eat just about anything, including meat, but tend to subsist mostly on insects, nuts, berries, acorns and other vegetation.

Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife scientist for the Humane Society of the United States, said 14 people have been killed in attacks by black bears in North America since 2000, including two in Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest. Boyles said another 10 people were killed by grizzlies during the period, mostly in Alaska and Canada.

In Kentucky, officials opened a hunting season for bears, a move pushed by the state League of Sportsmen to reinforce the animals’ fear of humans.

More than a century ago, bears thrived in Kentucky, but over-hunting and habitat loss led to their disappearance. As the large animals have ventured back from neighboring states, Kentucky residents nowadays find themselves unaccustomed to living among bears.

“You’ve got bears moving into areas where people live and you’ve got people moving into areas where bears live,” said Mark Ternent, a state bear biologist in Pennsylvania. “Both of those scenarios frequently involve people with little experience living around bears.”

Ternent said most of the encounters are harmless, ending with the bears running away.

“The average bear is afraid of people,” he said. “If it encounters a person, it would rather flee than fight.”

Boyles said people can prevent unwanted bear encounters by doing simple things like putting bird feeders out of reach of the animals, putting trash out only on the day it is to be picked up, and keeping pet food indoors.

Koger, a construction worker, said he has run across lots of bears over the years in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Most of the time, he said, the bears don’t relish the encounters either.

“Usually they want to get away from you as much you want to get away from them,” he said.

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