It has long been an accepted theory among wildlife biologists nuisance bear complaints rise during years when natural food sources are scarce.
It stands to reason bears would be forced into campsites and residential areas in search of food during seasons in which berries and nuts are limited, and studies seem to support that premise.
But can environmental officials accurately predict when these years will occur?
Further, do bears have higher reproduction rates during years when natural forage is abundant?
A graduate student of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) aims to help answer those questions.
As part of her graduate studies, Courtney LaMere has begun a project looking at the relationships between natural food abundance and human-bear conflict numbers and reproduction.
She is doing so in tandem with state wildlife biologists at SUNY-ESF's Adirondack Ecological Center (AEC) at the Huntington Wildlife Forest in Newcomb.
The goal, according to LaMere, is to "to put some empirical evidence behind it and give the DEC a predictive tool for dealing with 'bad bear summers.'"
"Another hypothesis I have is that sows synchronize their reproduction with the beechnut crop," LaMere added.
Because beechnuts are the number one nut crop in the Adirondacks and the largest source of high-energy carbohydrates for the black bear, LaMere believes they play a critical role in both reproduction and nuisance complaints.
This year, LaMere said, is expected to be a banner year for beechnuts.
While LaMere has studies conducted by SUNY-ESF staff that focus on forest food abundance as well as harvest statistics and nuisance bear complaints from the DEC, there is little data tracking bear reproductive rates.
So, LaMere is reaching out to hunters for their help.
A number of collection points have been established, and LaMere is asking successful bear hunters to gather and submit the reproductive tract of female bears from their entrails.
"I need to do a major outreach to hunters as I'm asking for something they would usually leave in the woods," she said.
According to LaMere, there are telltale signs left in a bear's reproductive tract after a sow has mated and given birth to cubs. The process of ovulation and birth leaves visible scars inside the ovaries and uterus.
Cutting the tract open and studying the scars inside can shed tremendous light on the number of cubs produced, reproductive timing and reproductive success, LaMere said.
The findings will be used to not only help predict "bad bear summers," but also help determine if female bears synchronize their reproduction with natural food cycles.
Similar studies in other states such as West Virginia, Michigan and Maine have been done and the findings have become a useful tool in wildlife management.
LaMere hopes the same occurs in New York.
"Those of us studying environmental science and Forestry are in the unique position to help the DEC gather information they might not have the time or money to do," she said.
LaMere hopes to publish her findings as she finishes her masters work next summer. The findings will be posted to LaMere's Web site: www.esf.edu/aec/research/bearproject. A detailed list of collection points and a guide on how to remove the reproductive tract from the body cavity can also be found on the site.
John Gereau is managing editor of Denton Publications and an avid outdoorsman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.