Grafton County town wrestles with bear problem
WARREN - When it comes to wandering bears, New Hampshire's Baker River Valley can't rival Churchill, Manitoba, the remote Canadian town on a polar bear migration route.
But now some townspeople in Warren, including business owners, say their community is having its own mini version of a bear crisis. Families of unruly black bears seeking food have been hauling trash out of dumpsters and throwing it around, threatening to tap into a store's grain supply, and generally alarming campground visitors.
What's more, some bears seem less than impressed with efforts, such as loud noises, to scare them off. Rather than fleeing, a number have been reluctantly meandering off at their own pace, according to some who have encountered them.
"They're scaring the customers," Carole Clark said from her seat behind the counter at Scenic View Campground off Route 25, just across the highway from Uncle Jeff's Redneck Mini Golf.
"A couple of campers wanted to dump some trash at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon the other day, and they couldn't. The bears were in the dumpster," Clark said.
Her campground has 97 campsites on 18 acres and the potential for a confrontation between bears and campers.
"Last weekend, we had 22 families, a hundred or so people. But next weekend it'll be 500 over July 4th, 5th and 6th; that's Thursday through Saturday," Clark said.
Nancy Comeau, the federal government's "nuisance black bear specialist," responded to Clark's call for help and visited the campground recently. She left Clark a "scare device," Comeau said, a small, one-shot pistol that fires blanks. It often makes enough noise to drive off bears.
Clark added her own Jumbo M-5000 firecrackers for additional sound. The bears have been daily visitors recently.
"It shoos them," usually toward the Baker River, Clark said of the loud noise.
Clark said she is aware that feeding bears will encourage their return and that bear-human encounters sometimes end badly, more often for the bear, which may be put down by wildlife officials. That's an outcome she wants to avoid.
"That is not a good end for anybody," she said.
Rob Calvert, a wildlife biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, pointed out that for the past three or four years, feeding bears has been against the law in New Hampshire. The first offense usually results in a warning, with citations and fines for subsequent offenses, he said.
Calvert said he was not familiar with the situation in Warren, but recalled an incident farther north when bears lost a long-standing food source.
"Berlin used to have an open dump, and that's where people went to see the bears," he said.
When that dump closed, Calvert said the bears had to find other food sources and began roaming over a larger area.
Comeau said she responds as quickly as possible to bear complaints, and also tried to help Clark with some literature and advice, including tips on "appropriate care for their dumpster."
She said, contrary to what some believe, trash bins, managed properly, can be made "bear-proof."
"Metal tops with latches. They work. But you have to constantly make sure that they're latched," Comeau said. Vicki Swan owns Fat Bob's, a dairy bar side-by-side with the Burning Bush, a wood stove store and hardware business she co-owns just south of the village center. She said she has had visits from hungry bears as recently as last week.
One bear family arrived early in the morning when Swan was making coffee and getting the store ready for customers. She spotted a cub between the outer entryway and the front door, an area where bags of grain are stacked.
"I went outside to chase it off, and there was the mother," she said. When Swan followed the bears around to the side of the building and flung a nearby object at them to speed them along, she said one bear stopped and came back to examine the projectile to see if it was edible.
There are a couple of theories circulating in town regarding the bears' increased presence this year. They include that some in town who had fed the bears for years stopped recently, so the animals naturally expanded their search area for food.
Comeau declined to speculate on the cause, and referred questions to state and federal wildlife officials in Concord, who did not return messages.
Across town, Jane Higgins, who has run the popular local restaurant Calamity Jane's for 27 years, acknowledged the bears' increased presence.
"Everybody around here has seen them," she said Thursday. But Higgins has no problem with bears, she insisted, adding that her trouble comes from the sky instead.
"Crows. They do humongous damage in the trash. They can carry a bag off."
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