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Freeloading Bear's Shooting Boosts Adirondacks Feud : Nature: Biologists contend that feeding wildlife is bad for them and dangerous for humans. Others say the furry folks are gentle, fun to feed and a tourist attraction. The practice could be illegal by spring.

January 16, 1994|MARY ESCH | ASSOCIATED PRESS

OLD FORGE, N.Y. — To some people, he was a nuisance, knocking over trash cans to feed his addiction to garbage and grease. To others, he was a furry folk hero, beloved by tourists who brought him bread and honey.

He was nicknamed Split Ear, for an old battle scar. Now he's dead. His mammoth carcass was found in the woods on Aug. 28, five days after he was peppered with birdshot by a man sick of seeing the 680-pound bear around his dogs and children.

But even months after his body was bulldozed into the forest floor, Split Ear remains larger than life, his name invoked by those on both sides of a long-simmering feud in the hamlets within the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, home to about 4,000 black bears.

On one side are wildlife biologists and others who say feeding bears is bad for the animals and dangerous to humans. On the other side are people who say bears are gentle, fun to feed and a great tourist attraction. The state caused the problems in town, they say, when it shut down open-pit landfills.

"Old Split Ear was King of the Hill at the town dump," said Eugene Conger, 64, a semi-retired mechanic who fed seven bears in his yard until the state made him stop. "He'd been eating there for 26 years, then the government closed down his 'restaurant.' Where was he supposed to go?"

Bear-feeding in Old Forge, about 100 miles northwest of Albany, has gotten so rampant that state officials plan to make it illegal by next spring, said Louis Berchielli, bear expert for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Even those who feed bears "incidentally," by leaving crackers for deer or being sloppy with their garbage, may be subject to prosecution, he said. Legislation allowing the department to ban bear-feeding was signed by Gov. Mario Cuomo in August, along with updated hunting guidelines.

Conger said he started feeding bears in addition to deer four years ago, when a sow he calls Mabel came around. "She had been hit by a car and was hurt," he said.

Mabel would come for breakfast and dinner. "Sometimes she'd be lying on the picnic table, waiting," he said. "I called it Mabel's Table."

Every day, Mabel would gobble down a 5-gallon pail of grease-drenched pancakes and waffles donated by a local restaurant. A bakery sent 30 loaves of bread a week.

Conger would sit at the table with Mabel, hand-feeding her grapes, honey-soaked bread and maple syrup squirted from a plastic bottle. Other bears, including Split Ear, started coming after the dump closed two years ago. People came too, as many as 300 a day, to watch and feed the bears.

"It was quite the tourist attraction," Conger said.

But neighbors complained of traffic jams and cars parked on their lawns. Police were told of a man who let Mabel lick honey from the arm of his 8-year-old son.

"It became a circus-like atmosphere," Berchielli said. There was no law against feeding. "But because there was such a high potential for someone being hurt, we went in (in the fall of 1992) and told him that if he didn't stop we'd treat it as a criminal nuisance case."

Closing down Conger's snack bar didn't get rid of Split Ear, though. Plenty of other people also feed bears, although not so publicly, Conger said. And there are always trash bags and trash bins to raid.

"After Mr. Conger stopped feeding the bears, Split Ear would still come and sit on his neighbor's porch," Berchielli said. "It kind of terrorized the elderly lady who lived there."

So in September of 1992, Split Ear was lured into a culvert trap (essentially a big section of pipe), drugged, and trucked about 12 miles to the Moose River Plains, a wilderness area rife with black cherries and other bear food. He returned to Old Forge in May.

"People say they have to feed the bears because we closed the landfills," Berchielli said. "But Split Ear weighed 680 pounds (more than twice the normal weight of an adult male). His belly just about dragged on the ground."

The outcry over Split Ear's death inspired local artist Richard Nadeau to design a T-shirt honoring him. It is selling briskly at his Moose River Trading Post in nearby Thendara, he said. Nadeau envisions a whole line of Split Ear artifacts, including caps and key chains, with some of the profits going to a fund for bear research and educational brochures.

Celeste Nagle, who moved to Old Forge from Long Island with her husband, Gary, and opened the Black Bear Inn last July, said she doesn't mind the bears pawing through her trash. She fumes when she talks of Split Ear.

"That poor old bear just wanted something to eat," Celeste Nagle said, standing behind her bar beside several large, framed photographs of local bears. "He was never a threat to anyone."

Impassioned letters about Split Ear have become a regular feature in Old Forge's weekly newspaper, the Adirondack Express.

One writer penned a poem titled "An Ode to a Bear." Another, in "A Eulogy to Split Ear," wrote, "I will miss your silent lumbering and your dark, haunting eyes."

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