The Bear Facts

Posted July 24, 2008, at 12 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2011, at 11:56 p.m.

A state game warden’s decision to shoot and kill a black bear in a Bangor neighborhood on Saturday has elicited a slew of opinions from readers. Many expressed sympathy for the confused critter, which no doubt made a wrong turn in its wanderings. Or did it?

Maine’ s black bears have a complex relationship with humans. Randy Cross, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, has said that young male bears, soon after their mothers have run them off to make it on their own, often flounder. Likening them to young male humans who haven’ t quite figured out how to make a living, he said the bears often travel many miles in a quest for a territory that will support them. If another adult bear believes the youngster is encroaching on its food supply, the junior bear is sent packing with a snarl and a swipe.

In the lean time after winter and before berries and nuts ripen, bears get desperate and head for backyard bird feeders and trash cans.

An important wrinkle to the bear-human relationship, Mr. Cross has said, is that Mama Bear teaches her cubs to fear people. That fear comes because bears are hunted, he said. “Once bears have lost their fear of humans, they’ re a much more dangerous animal,” Mr. Cross told BDN columnist John Holyoke last year. The Holyoke piece last June was written after an 11-year-old boy was dragged from his tent and killed by a black bear in Utah.

The warden in the Bangor neighborhood had to make a decision based predominantly on public safety. With crowds of people watching, the warden assessed the likelihood of the bear making it back to the woods without encountering a dog, without taking a swipe at a child, and without being struck by a car or causing a collision. Without a tranquilizer to incapacitate the bear — which doesn’ t always work as swiftly as some think — the warden made the correct decision to shoot and kill the animal.

Interestingly, in late July 2001, a bear spent the better part of a Sunday afternoon in the same neighborhood. According to a BDN story at the time, the young male climbed a tree on Plaisted Street and stayed there for seven hours, before leaving at dark. A warden then shot the bear with a tranquilizer gun, but it didn’ t bring him down. Two other darts missed their mark.

And a letter writer noted that in 1970 a bear had to be shot dead in the same neighborhood.

According to the BDN’ s archives, in 1982 a bear led police on a chase through a Bangor neighborhood and then was shot with a gun — three times before it succumbed. In 1986, a bear suffered a broken back when it was struck by a car in Bangor, and then was shot dead.

The sympathy for the bear’ s plight is not misplaced wild animals are a thing of beauty and their presence enriches our lives. But that sympathy is trumped by the warden’ s responsibility to keep the public safe from a wild — and therefore unpredictable — animal with the capacity to hurt or kill someone.

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