Something swiped a garbage can from a home in Nuangola Borough last week, and wildlife conservation officer Dave Allen was hot on the culprit’s trail.
The responsible party left tracks in the snow, and Allen followed them to a nearby pavilion nestled between several residences. The trail led into a crawl space under the building, and Allen sneaked underneath and saw a pile of branches, the trash can and the thief - a large black bear.
“He was looking at me so I slowly backed out,” Allen said. “He was hibernating in the crawl space and came out for a couple days and took the trash can back in with him.”
To avoid future problems, Allen set a trap, caught the bear and released it on State Game Lands in Sullivan County. He estimated the male bruin weighed 600 pounds, and considering a bear loses a significant amount of weight during the winter, Allen said it’s likely it weighed approximately 800 pounds before hibernation.
The case of the trash can thief is just one example of many regarding bears denning underneath houses in the winter. Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Kevin Wenner said there are between six and 12 instances of bears taking up residence under homes each year in the Northeast Region alone. He added that there are likely many more that no one is aware of.
“It’s more prevalent in Monroe and Pike counties, and you see it with houses that have attached porches or a crawl space,” Wenner said. “A lot of times they are seasonal houses that when the bear dens there no one is living in the home. They come back for a weekend in the winter and discover they have a bear denned up under the house.”
During his 12-year career as a WCO, Allen said he’s encountered bears denning under a home or building five times. Such locations can be attracting to a bruin, he said, because it’s basically a ready-made den.
“The one in Nuangola was open in the front end to provide access and the back end was below ground, just like a den,” Allen said.
The fact that such dens bring the bear into close proximity to people means little to the animal because they are already accustomed to human activity, said Bill Williams, information and education supervisor for the PGC’s Northeast Region. Instances of feeding bears or the attractant offered by food sources such as bird feeders and garbage only increases the comfort level bears have with people, he said.
Still, when a bear does den under a house it doesn’t always mean public safety is at risk.
“Sometimes the bear will just get up and leave without anyone knowing it was even there,” Williams said. “But if there is a concern, we advise people to call us and we’ll come out.”
The Nuangola bear was trapped and relocated not so much because it was denning in a neighborhood, but it was a nuisance due to its habit of raiding bird feeders and trash cans.
Relocating a bear while its in its winter slumber can be tricky because the animal is already low on energy reserves and such an ordeal can be taxing. Relocating to a new area requires the bear to use up more energy in search of another den site.
“Their respiration rate is already reduced because their metabolism is so low during these times,” Wenner said. “It’s important to work on them quickly and effectively to limit the impact.”
And if its a sow with cubs that has to be relocated from underneath a house, Wenner said a few extra steps are taken to maintain the health of all the bears.
The cubs vital signs are monitored and they are administered oxygen through a mask while the mother is removed from the den. At the relocation site, Wenner said a new den is constructed - usually a ground nest, and the cubs are placed inside. While the mother is still anesthetized, she is placed in the nest and wrapped around the cubs.
“The hope is when she comes out of the drug and see that her cubs are there she really won’t know any different,” Wenner said.
Wenner agreed that just because a bear is denned up under a house doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a safety risk. The bear is in a docile state, he said, and if left alone will conclude its hibernation and move on.
With more homes being built in bear habitat, Williams said instances of bears denning under residences isn’t likely to go away.
“Most people think of a bear den as a cave in rocks, but they’re actually quite small,” Williams said. “Underneath a porch or inside a crawl space makes for an inviting place because they can curl up in there and stay out of the elements.”