They do not prefer the company of people, but they love our culinary leftovers and have become practiced dumpster divers at our finest bistros, as well as connoisseurs of birdfeeder suet and stray bits left unattended on backyard grills. They have raided the honey in beehives (Cross River), scarfed banana plants (Bedford), and hopped up on back porches (Yonkers), perhaps wondering what’s for dinner. They have a better sense of smell than dogs, and they’ll sniff out a meal from a mile away.
It’s time for an official decree: Bears are a fact of life in Westchester, and we must learn to live with them. From a safe and respectful distance, we must crown them collectively as the big kahuna of an ever-expanding suburban menagerie, a kingdom of wild beasts that includes coyotes, red and gray foxes, white-tail deer, and the rare (at least for now) bobcat or two.
Bears are becoming less scarce with each passing year. There were two reported sightings in Westchester in 2019, 11 in 2020, and 16 in 2021, according to wildlife biologist Jonathan Russell of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. As many as 8,000 bears are said to be roaming New York State, a number that exceeds the human population of, say, Larchmont. It’s no longer a question of what towns have been visited by bears but rather what towns haven’t.
“Bear populations have been expanding throughout most of New York State in recent times,” Russell says, “and there is an increasing likelihood of a black bear in an urban or suburban area.”
It’s a remarkable comeback story. In the 19th century, Russell says, bears were all but eliminated in New York due to unregulated hunting as well as massive deforestation for agricultural purposes. The remaining bears were forced to seek refuge in remote mountain areas. Legend has it that the “last bear” on Bear Mountain was shot and killed in 1845 or 1885, depending on which version of the story you believe.
The 20th century brought a dramatic transformation. Between 1954 and 2017, the number of farms in New York declined from 105,714 to 33,438, and the forests returned — and, presto, so did the bears. It’s legal to hunt bears in New York, but today’s strict “harvesting” laws prevent them from being wiped out. In Westchester, where only bowhunting is allowed, bear kills are infrequent. None were taken last year and just two in the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
In any event, now there are plenty of bears. As Russell puts it: Bears are now “well established.”
Scrolling local newspaper archives, I’ve managed to pinpoint the advent of bears-in-the-burbs to around 1963, when a single 350-pound male was spotted in Rockland County. People who claimed they saw it were accused of lying and/or drunkenness. An incredulous wildlife expert said it must have escaped from a circus, because there hadn’t been a “substantiated” report of a free-roaming bear in 100 years.
It’s time for an official decree: Bears are a fact of life in Westchester, and we must learn to live with them.
Before long, bears arrived in Westchester, either by swimming their way east across the Hudson or waddling south through the woods of Dutchess and Putnam counties. Seeing them was always a front-page sensation. An episode in 1997, for instance, garnered the type of news coverage normally reserved for a declaration of war. The featured star was a typical ursine intruder — an adolescent male searching for new territory after being expelled by his mother. Chased for five days through central Westchester, he finally ended up in White Plains, near the 16th hole of the Ridgeway Country Club, where he was shot with a tranquilizer dart.
Bears don’t get ink like that anymore. They’re no longer a novelty. Perhaps that explains why there was no press attention given to a family of three bears that was seen wandering around Yonkers last June. One report had it that they were scampering in the direction of Dunwoodie Golf Course — the links obviously being a go-to refuge for suburban bears.
Now you might not think that Yonkers — the third-largest city in the state — is known for its biodiversity. But just like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, bears do get lost in Yonkers from time to time.
Seven years ago, a hapless adolescent bear was treed in my neighborhood, near the confluence of the Sprain and Bronx River parkways. I have looked out for bears ever since.
Ursus subur-bacansus. They’re not as common as crabgrass, but they are a bear fact of life.