"In Bear Country"

August 30, 2008

Pole Dance

Strangest thing you ever saw: like a five foot tall, crazed beaver chewed three quarters of the way through the creosote-coated telephone pole! Bits of wiry black fur and telltale teeth and claw marks confirmed that a bear had chewed at the telephone pole. The next pole down the line had completely snapped off at the same height and was hanging suspended from its wires after a bear – or bears plural – removed 90% of the supporting wood.

We were hiking along a telephone line right-of-way through thick woods near Long Pond in Lempster on a field trip reconnaissance tour. The Forest Society is actively working to purchase and conserve the 1,800 acres which includes Silver Mountain overlooking Sand Pond and Long Pond. The property lies in the headwaters of the Ashuelot River. It's just the kind of remote and rugged terrain favored by black bears in New Hampshire.

In bear country, you can expect to find droppings – ;bear scat comprised entirely of blueberries by August. Claw marks on smooth gray beech trunks indicate where bears climb to reach beech nuts in autumn. Bite and scratch marks left on soft bark of red pines are fringed with bits of fur. The bear-bitten telephone poles are new to me although I've been told of similar occurrences elsewhere.

To create territorial scent posts, black bears claw, bite and rub against sticky pitch oozing from the soft, corky bark of red pines. Bears rub scent glands located behind their ears against the sticky aromatic sap and leave fur behind at tree wound sites. Other bears visit to bite, scratch and sniff and rub in an ursine equivalent of an online "My Space" page. Selected trees or in this case, telephone poles are a social networking site for bears the way fire hydrants are to urban dogs. It's a place to leave your mark.

Sticky pine pitch fixes bear scent in its home range and conveys both the timing and frequency of repeated visits as well as physical stature and reproductive status. Sows and female cubs remaining in their natal territories also post repeated visits. Pine pitch may even confer social status, like cologne worn during the May to July breeding season.

I like to think a love-sick adolescent male bear over-used that creosote-coated pole like "Axe" body spray. More accurately, it used both teeth and claws like an axe.

Feeding Time

It's always feeding time for bears. After dining on carbohydrate-rich summer fruits called "soft mast" including strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, pin cherries and black cherries, bears have begun to seek fall fare including waxy orange mountain ash berries, apples and wild grapes. In early autumn, bears switch from high-carbohydrate to a high-fat and protein-rich diet. From September to November, the nuts called "hard mast" include red and white oak acorns in southern and central N.H. and beech nuts in the north. Hard mast is essential to fattening-up for the coming winter.

Bears are opportunistic eaters. If the regional nut crops are a bust – as they were in most of the State in 2007 – bears leave the relative security of forests to visit suburban backyards seeking bird feeders, barbecue grills, pet food bowls, trash cans and dumpsters. In rural areas, farm crops including corn and apples become particularly important. Corn fields along the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers are preferred feeding locations when forest mast is unavailable. Hunter success increases in years when bears are on the move. With an abundant nut crop like this autumn promises, bear hunters must work harder to reach more remote, inaccessible areas where bears remain concealed in large blocks of core forest.

Beech and oak forests are where bears typically gather to fatten on cyclical nut crops. Repeated use of an area is evidenced by bear claw scars on the beech trunks. Clusters of five claw scars show where a bear's front paws hugged a tree while climbing. Long vertical slashes indicate where a bear's rear claws gouged the smooth gray bark, braking while sliding down.

Read the Label

The trunks of beech trees bearing nuts have climbing scars renewed in mast years. Some beech trees seem especially favored for ease of climbing while others nearby are completely unmarked. Are some beechnuts genetically sweeter or more palatable than others? Also, how do bears on the ground select which trees to climb? Bears either smell ripening beechnuts overhead or they simply "read the label" and climb trees with existing claw marks, trees that had proven to yield nuts in the past. Certainly, sows teach cubs favored local feeding locales and bears imprint on the best locations, returning annually to feed.

New Hampshire Fish and Game Bear Biologist, Andrew Timmons doesn't fully agree about beech tree selection. He says "I believe that bears climb those trees that have viable nuts rather than sweeter nuts. Also, I don't feel climb-ability is too important. I think bears will climb any tree that has viable nuts."

One thing is certain: bears are particularly fond of hillsides and ridge locations and will frequent forests along saddles connecting hilltops. A decade ago, Forest Service biologists studying bear habitat preferences determined that bears preferentially feed in beech forests located on remote hillsides and along ridges. With an acute sense of smell and relatively limited eyesight, black bears rely on air currents to provide strategic, olfactory views of the surroundings. If there's a food source nearby – beechnuts, acorns, a cornfield, birdfeeders, a barbecue grill or dumpster – bears smell it. If hunters or hikers with dogs approach from one side of a ridge, bears flee down the opposite side before the threat is near enough to see or hear. Mountainous topography provides a strategic advantage because bears constantly sniff the air currents conveying up-to-the-minute news headlines. Topographic "scent-scape" influences bear travel corridors and preferred feeding and resting locations.

The travel corridors connecting large blocks of farms and forestland are important in regions fragmented by roads and residential development. A large boar may maintain a home range of 50 square miles in good habitat to 100 square miles in poor quality habitat. Sows and their female cubs occupy smaller 10 to 25 square mile home ranges. The dominant local boar's home range may overlap territories occupied by a potential harem of five or more sows. Interloping adolescent boars must travel warily between favored feeding and resting locales, perhaps first stopping to say hi – communicating via telephone (pole)!