Does New Hampshire Have a Bear Problem?
A disconnect between the public and the state may be paving a road to New Hampshire's first fatal bear attack in 150 years
For the last several months, the coronavirus pandemic has quieted the normal bustle of Fish and Game’s headquarters, but Glenn Normandeau still comes in on a pretty regular basis, chuckling at the Dilbert cartoons taped to his door and employing a paperwork system that suits the never-ending triaging of tasks.
“I pile them up,” he says, “and if I don’t have to find them in a year or so, it’s time for them to go.”
Normandeau, 63 years old and the son of a fisheries biologist, typically wears a crisp collared shirt to signify his position as executive director, balanced by a worn hunting cap that speaks to the outdoorsmen whose interests he identifies with. A seven-point deer head — the victim of an arrow Normandeau loosed a few years back — hangs over his computer.
Normandeau’s days here are limited — the Fish and Game Commission has been abundantly clear that, after 12 years in the post, Normandeau is soon to be ousted — but he still has to manage the usual flood of public hearing notices, purchase orders, and reports on everything from roadkills to hunting license fees.
In late June, Normandeau’s eyes fell on a new report, one more puzzling than the usual paperwork.
A black bear incident in Canaan, where the Orange Brook helps drain rainfall from the bare granite heights of Cardigan Mountain. Normandeau knew the state’s western region was suffering from the June drought and stifling heat.
Late on a Friday night, a Canaan man was so hot that, despite the darkness, he’d gone outside to get an air conditioner from the back of his pickup truck. As he hoisted the heavy unit in his arms, he was attacked from behind, steak-knife-size claws etching a set of deep, blood-lined furrows into the skin of his back.
When the man shouted and turned to shove at the bear, it retreated into the blackness of the night. Though shaken and bleeding, the man escaped without serious injuries — and without a clear understanding of why the bear had targeted him.
Normandeau’s job has gained him some low-grade bear expertise — just days before the Canaan attack, he’d helped release some orphaned yearlings from a Lyme-based rehab center. But he didn’t understand the Canaan bear’s motivation either.
No one did.
Normandeau is a good enough manager to know he’s not qualified to dictate a response to bear conflicts. As his eyes scanned the report, nothing about it screamed for his personal attention. His primary role would be to field any concerns from the governor’s office or the press.
“I have people that know more about bears in their little finger than I’ll ever know in my life,” he later said, “and I’ll leave it to those folks to make decisions on the ground.”
When it comes to de-escalating simmering bear tensions, the magic ingredient is an experienced game warden or biologist — through interviews and observation of physical evidence, the investigating staffer can devise and apply a corrective action, such as telling a neighbor to take in a bird feeder or killing the animal.
Back in the 1970s, when a teenaged Normandeau hunted and fished the Beebe River Valley, this system worked well, even though there were only 50 wardens covering the state’s 9,300 square miles.
But as he transitioned into successive careers as a commercial fisherman, and then a water quality consultant, the department was facing strain. By 2002, its permit-dependent funding formula was beginning to break down. With taxpayers unwilling to make up for waning permit sales, the department was forced to cut staff, shut down facilities and defer equipment maintenance.
These days, the state’s bench of bear-savvy employees is smaller, just one of many systemic problems that increasingly imperil the safety of New Hampshire’s bears — and its humans. Though Fish and Game still has 47 wardens in theory, several of those positions go unfunded each year.
“Right now, I think we’re somewhere around 41 or 42,” Normandeau says. “Never been 50 in my 12 and a half years here.”
As the staff shrank, New Hampshire’s population grew.
“It’s the difference between a state with 735,000 people in it and one with 1.35 million,” says Normandeau. “We live in a very different state than what I grew up in.”
History suggests bear conflicts don’t have to be a feature of life in New Hampshire — but for some reason, over the past decade, they have been.
A Slew of Bear Attacks?
It’s not obvious to the general public, but over the last decade ursine-sapien relations have entered a unique phase in New Hampshire’s post-Colonial history.
In the 1700s, when bears posed a significant threat to public safety, lawmakers issued bounties for anyone that turned in a “bear’s head with both ears on,” and these were often supplemented by local town bounties. Over 200 years, this tax-funded specicide created the intended effect —reports of bear attacks dried up in the 1800s, and most of the state was, by the mid-1900s, bear-free, with a few isolated survivors up in the mountains, where people rarely ventured.
“For much of the time, they’ve been considered varmints,” Normandeau says. “They’d really been extirpated from the southern part of the state.”
By the time former Gov. John Lynch asked Normandeau to take the executive director position in 2008, the possibility
of a bear attack in New Hampshire seemed as remote and mythic as a Bigfoot attack.
But in 2012, the unthinkable happened — that June, a woman in Grafton named Tracey Colburn opened her front door to let her dog out and found that her porch was, in her words, “full of bear.” Two grown cubs fled, but Colburn says a third bear, the mother, would have killed her were it not for her dog drawing off the attack (as it was, Colburn suffered deep claw wounds and lost frightening amounts of blood).
State officials described the Colburn incident as a freak accident, but in 2018, there was a second bear attack in Groton, where April Rogers, an elderly woman, exited her bedroom in her wheelchair to find a bear in her kitchen. Though Rogers survived, the bear inflicted serious injuries on her head and torso before fleeing the scene.
This year’s Canaan bear attack marks the third in eight years, Even stranger, the three attacks are clustered within about 10 miles of Cardigan Mountain, so near one another that they could conceivably have happened within the territory of a single bear (though the odds of a single bear perpetrator being behind the attacks are vanishingly small).
The reasons behind the three attacks are not wholly obvious — but unless they are understood and addressed, the near future is likely to hold more attacks, perhaps fatal ones.
The Bear Farm
In one sense, Grafton’s bears came from the woods. But in another, equally true, sense, they came from the Commonwealth of New Hampshire.
Each bear is the result of active changes to state policies that previously supported a bear-free landscape.
In 1955, the bounty system was halted, and in 1956, lawmakers instead began funding crude bear census counts. During this era, New Hampshire bears were transformed from a public threat to a public resource — as an enduring symbol of the wilderness, bears were valued by nature lovers, photographers, hunters, wilderness guides and the general public. In 1978, New Hampshire hired its first dedicated bear biologist, who used a punch-card computing system to track hunter bear-kill statistics.
Under the new paradigm, bears thrived.
“The bottom line is, bears do three things. They sleep, they eat, and they make more bears,” said Normandeau.
By 1990, with a healthy population of 3,500 bears, Fish and Game opened most of the state to bear hunting for the first time in decades, and sold tens of thousands of bear-hunting permits. Though hunters killed nearly 1,500 bears between 2003 and 2004 alone, bears outbred them, attaining an all-time population high of 4,830 bears in 2005.
That was enough bears, decided the department, which lengthened the hunting season with a plan to stabilize the number at 5,100.
But Granite State bears had a slightly different plan: to make a thousand more bears.
The bears prevailed. Between 2006 and 2013, their ranks increased by another 1,140. The number of bear complaints was soaring too — an average of 600, and as many as 1,200 calls a year.
Normandeau’s staff was learning that bear populations were actually quite resilient to hunting pressure.
“It has become evident that the state’s robust bear population can withstand occasional periods of increased harvest,” an annual wildlife report noted.
By 2018, the state considered the bear density to be too high in almost every county. In the wildlife management region that includes Grafton, Groton and Canaan, bears outpaced population targets by more than 50%.
Normandeau’s efforts to extend the hunting season again this year hit a logistical snag in the coronavirus crisis, which
has disrupted the ability to hold needed public hearings.
In addition to their geographical proximity, the recent bear attacks have something else in common — all three came in the midst of heat waves or droughts. Such natural events, exacerbated by climate change, deplete the forests of acorn crops and other ready natural food sources for the bears, which then seek to supplement their calorie counts with human food.
In 2018, with squirrel roadkills littering the state’s roads, the idea of a “squirrel-ageddon” captured the imagination of the public. What was less evident was that the same boom-and-bust of acorn mast behind the bumper crop of squirrels also created a bumper crop of bears, which may have played into the attack on Rogers.
“The exact same thing happened to bears,” Normandeau said. “We ended up with a record number of bears in rehab, because of sows getting hit on the road.”
In a perfect world, Fish and Game would be able to relocate bears that get too desensitized to humans, and that can happen. In 2018, political pressure from some Hanover residents caused Normandeau to relocate a problem bear in Hanover, nicknamed “Mink.”
But bear relocation is resource-intensive — and, of course, a bear with a taste for trash will work hard to reconnect with human food sources. Mink, for example, wandered more than 1,000 miles to find her way back to Hanover.
“It looks good in the fantasy world, but in reality, a lot of relocated bears don’t survive,” said Normandeau.
Given that reality, it is perhaps no surprise that the state’s primary line of defense against bear conflicts is “Something’s Bruin in New Hampshire — Learn to Live with Bears,” a public education campaign begun in 1996.
The campaign teaches people to manage their garbage, compost, livestock, barbecue grills and birdfeeders in ways that are less likely to attract bears. Public education, Normandeau says, is “far superior” to relocating, retraining or killing problem bears.
“If people simply protect their livestock and properly secure their garbage, things are fine.” Normandeau says the campaign has found a willing audience.
“They see that feeding bears is actually detrimental to bears in the long run. There’s a reason we say a fed bear is a dead bear,” he said, echoing one of the campaign’s taglines.
The campaign also serves the state by putting the onus of responsibility for bear behavior on the public, rather than the state policies that have encouraged their proliferation. But the “Live Free or Die” state is full of enclaves of people who resent, and even defy, state edicts on how to deal with wildlife on their private property. Grafton, the site of the first bear attack, also hosted the notorious “Free Town Project,” a no-holds-barred social experiment in which freedom-minded libertarians sought to assert their individual rights to all walks of life, including, in some cases, the right to feed bears on their property.
The Free Town Project, which began in 2004 and petered out around 2018, could explain why all three bear attacks happened in that region.
Intentionally feeding bears, says Normandeau, is a recipe for disaster.
“They lose their fear of people, and then you get really downright dangerous situations, with bears going into houses,” Normandeau said. “We’ve had a couple near-disasters with that sort of experience.”
The disconnect between Free Towners and the Fish and Game department demonstrates that some residents will never voluntarily comply with the “Something’s Bruin” campaign.
If the public will not fund more game wardens, and doesn’t want to simply accept the trade-off of bear attacks, there are options.
But they’re unlikely to be implemented.
A Bruined Future
The state could dramatically reduce the number of problematic bear encounters by dramatically reducing the number of bears, at least in human-dense areas.
Or it could codify all the best bear practices — force people to manage their garbage and birdfeeders more responsibly, adopt strict zoning that would shape development in ways that are less likely to attract bears, and stiffen penalties for those who actively feed wild bears.
Such measures have proven to be effective in tamping down bear complaints in National Parks, and Normandeau said municipalities with similar local ordinances have made “big strides in reducing bear conflicts.”
In 2013, New Hampshire lawmakers took a tiny step toward such mandates when it considered a bill to require owners of wildlife-attracting garbage “to store or dispose of such solid waste in a wildlife resistant manner (i.e., bear-proof dumpsters and garbage cans).”
But to many New Hampshirites, the 2013 bill stank of statism and taxes.
The legislative Fish and Game and Resources Committee heard a man testify, without evidence, that the heavier components of bear-proof garbage cans posed a threat, because children might get trapped inside, or beheaded by a slamming lid (or both trapped and beheaded). Two months after taking it up, the committee voted 14-0 to kill the measure.
And so, without the political appetite for stricter laws, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Normandeau’s underfunded staff. Though the department responds to each bear attack, it has not expended enough resources to capture the ursine offenders.
Colburn, the Grafton woman who was attacked in 2012, said officials set a bear trap, but removed it, empty, a few days later. In 2018, when Rogers was attacked, Normandeau’s team responded with tracking dogs, but the bear was never caught. (“By the time they got there the following morning, heavy rain had started and they couldn’t pick a scent up,” says Normandeau). And the bear that was behind this year’s mysterious attack in Canaan also evaded trapping efforts. (“I don’t recall hearing that they did ever capture it,” Normandeau says).
Thankfully, none of the three bears appears to have become a repeat offender.
As Normandeau works through his last days as executive director, it’s unlikely that his successor will manage to fund a significant expansion of bear management resources. But in future drought years, that person can expect to see more bear conflicts, some of which are likely to result in human injuries, and even death.
And unless lawmakers muster the political will for a legislative fix, the public may simply have to grin — and bear it.
Eleazer Wilcox and the Bear
Eleazer Wilcox was an early settler of Gilsum, New Hampshire, residing there in the 1770s. One day he met up with a bear in what has become one of the most famous wild animal encounters in the history of the region.
The encounter occurred one early summer day in the year 1776, as Wilcox was on his way to his pasture near the southern border of Gilsum. Along the way he discovered a large bear that he shot and wounded. The bear escaped, however, and Wilcox went to Joshua Osgood of Sullivan, who owned a hunting dog, for help in tracking down the wounded animal.
Wilcox and Osgood tracked the bear for three miles before separating to have a better chance for a shot. The wounded bear suddenly charged Wilcox from behind a tree. Wilcox raised his gun, but it misfired. The bear raised up on its back legs, knocked the gun away, and took hold of Wilcox. Wilcox seized the bear’s tongue and held on with all his strength. The hunting dog continually attacked the bear from the rear and Wilcox, a large and powerful man, was able to remain on his feet as the bear pressed down upon him. Osgood soon arrived on the scene, care-fully took aim and shot the bear, whereupon it released its hold and ran into the woods where it was found dead the next day.
Wilcox was carried home on a litter and was found to have no less than 42 wounds upon his body. Amazingly, he recovered and lived for 47 more years to the age of 74. He was never completely well, however, and was occasionally subject to illnesses that he called his “bear fits.”
The encounter with the bear was a favorite family story for many years. The gun that Wilcox had with him that day is still marked with the deep gouges made by the attacking bear. This trusted firearm has been passed down from generation to generation, and was undoubtedly used as evidence to convert nonbelievers of the tale of Eleazer Wilcox and the bear.