Between A Town And Its Bears, A Star-Crossed Relationship
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In upstate New York's Adirondack Mountains, the hamlet of Old Forge is a destination for hikers and campers. Bears like the area too. They seem to be everywhere, and the bear's popularity among tourists and locals has a downside. North Country Public Radio's Natasha Haverty takes us there.
NATASHA HAVERTY, BYLINE: Larry Starer owns Candy Cottage on Main Street here in Old Forge. Starer points to the side of the store where a black bear once tried to claw his way in.
LARRY STARER: Here's the window, right there. Yeah, they replaced - well, from here down. So he went up over five feet.
HAVERTY: Lots of people in Old Forge tell similar stories because encounters with bears have become part of the culture here. Tourists like Greg Settle and his family come every summer expecting to get their real nature experience.
GREG SETTLE: We love the bears. We have bears go through our campground - that kind of thing. So when we're camping out at night, the bears come walking through, we get all excited. We chase them around -that kind of stuff. It's a lot of fun.
HAVERTY: Bears are a currency around here. The Bear's Den restaurant, Bear In A Tub Laundromat - wooden bear carvings stand all down the main road. Starer has customers all the time who ask where they should throw marshmallows out of their car to lure a bear.
Lots of people are just careless with their trash. Other campers leave food out overnight on purpose. One guy in town used to have a picnic table on his lawn where people could sit and watch a bear named Mabel chow down and then buy a T-shirt that said, I fed Mabel.
STEVE HEERKINS: The public needs to understand that their actions have ramifications.
HAVERTY: Steve Heerkins is with the Department of Conservation in Old Forge. He's the guy that had to shoot the candy store bear.
HEERKINS: Do we really want our wildlife eating diapers and garbage and being exposed to metal and glass and - that's not a bear. That's not a wild bear. It's eating a diaper.
HAVERTY: Getting caught feeding wildlife intentionally or unintentionally can mean a $250 fine. But candy shop owner Larry Starer thinks punishing tourists won't help Old Forge.
STARER: That's going to be one or two or three families a day that will stop coming to Old Forge because they came up to have a good time, and alls they got was a lousy ticket for feeding an animal.
HAVERTY: There are lots of people in Old Forge who want to do the right thing - who don't want bears coming into town and causing damage to their businesses. The town's taken some big steps in recent years, putting electric fencing around commercial dumpsters, extending the transfer station hours. Kate Russell, who owns a gift shop and is on the town board, says they're constantly thinking about how to handle the problem without singling out tourists.
KATE RUSSELL: It's not their fault. They come here from an urban area and they want to see the animals. They want to see the wildlife.
HAVERTY: She says she always stops to try and educate tourists she sees feeding wild animals with mixed results.
RUSSELL: Some people take to that, and other people - you know, we've all gotten gestures. (Laughter).
HAVERTY: Retired forest ranger Gary Lee lives outside of Old Forge. He says when visitors lure bears to them, they're missing the whole point of wilderness.
GARY LEE: People come here and sit on a picnic table bench and get bit by a black fly and figure they've had an Adirondack experience. Well, now they might get nipped by a bear and think they've had an Adirondack experience, so...
HAVERTY: We walk to a wild rasberry patch on the edge of the woods. Lee points to where he says a bear was foraging the night was before, and says he doesn't need to get any closer to appreciate that she was there. For NPR News, I'm Natasha Haverty in northern New York.
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