Bear Safety Rules

Black bears are more common in New York state than most people realize, with the population estimated to be near 5,000. While the largest concentration of bears is in the Adirondack Region, substantial populations also exist in the Catskills and Western New York and New Jersey, resulting in bears constantly roaming into Southern New York looking to establish new home ranges.

The black bear is New York’s second largest land mammal. An average adult female weighs 150 pounds. Adult males are considerably larger, averaging 300 pounds with occasional animals tipping the scale at over 600 pounds. Black bears typically range over large areas, with some home ranges covering hundreds of square miles. Black bears eat both plant and animal foods, but the bulk of their diet is usually plant material. Animal foods are usually ants, grubs and animals that are already dead or partially decayed. Above all, the black bear is an opportunist and will take advantage of almost any readily available food source.

Your chances of seeing a bear in the wild are low because bears have a strong instinct to avoid people. But this fear of people has not remained in all bears. It is lost in individual bears attracted to unprotected food and garbage. FOOD is the “key” word here. Living with bears in bear country is easy if you just keep that in mind. If a bear shows up, remove the attraction immediately and the bear usually disappears within a day or two.

Problems often arrive when people intentionally put food out to attract bears for observation or photography. This can quickly get out of hand and unforeseen damage can occur, or it can create problems for unsuspecting neighbors. Please note that it is illegal to feed bears within 500 feet of any occupied building (unless owned and occupied by the person feeding), school, play ground, paved public road, designated or established campsite, landfill or dump.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) rarely traps and moves problem bears for several reasons. In bear country, removing the bear and leaving the attraction is a very short term solution; it doesn’t take very long for another bear to come along and find the attraction. Vacant territories are very quickly taken over by other bears. Black bears also have a homing ability that we do not fully understand. Adult bears have a very strong attraction to their home range and if moved, return very quickly. In southeastern New York, DEC has moved bears as far as 60 miles only to have them return to the exact capture location in several days. For both these reasons, the manpower and expense of moving a problem bear is neither effective or cost efficient. Removing or securing the food attraction will almost always eliminate the presence of a bear.

The issue of human safety is always on the minds of people who see a bear nearby. Bears are impressive animals and reactions to them are based on expectations of what a bear could do as opposed to what bears actually do. Wild animals of any size should not be approached, touched or fed. Bears almost always retreat and avoid humans if possible. Bears who have learned to associate food with humans or houses can become persistent. Once again, removal of food and sometimes additional negative conditioning will change the bear’s habits.

More information on black bears is available on the Internet. Go to the DEC web page for black bear information or go to the North American Bear Center’s web site at for information on black bears, human safety, living with bears, what to do if you see a bear, and bear life history.