Hornell, N.Y. — There are still many mysteries about black bears, contends Professor John VanNiel and his Black Bear Management I class at Finger Lakes Community College.
VanNiel and his students are currently investigating a mysterious aspect of bruin behavior - bears that appear to deliberately retread their tracks along a predetermined trail, leaving deep impressions in the earth. A high density of scratched and bitten trees often accompanies these routes.
The phenomenon has been documented in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. VanNiel and company are asking the general public for help finding similar occurrences in New York state.
"I think some people are reluctant to ask the public (for help) because there's always the chance for misidentification or who knows what, but I have confidence in people," VanNiel said. "I've met enough savvy outdoorsmen that maybe don't have the college degree but still have a lot of woodcraft knowledge and could really be a lot of help in this."
The project was born in July, when VanNiel and conservation technician Sasha MacKenzie journeyed to central Massachusetts to assist researchers at the Walnut Hill Tracking and Nature Center. It was there that they witnessed the phenomenon first hand.
"We had gone there to work with a couple people who have been studying these (retread tracks) for about seven years," recalled VanNiel, a professor of environmental conservation and horticulture at FLCC. "They took us to one and we stumbled upon another one in the process. It was really interesting. They're hard to describe... until you've actually seen it and seen that these bears are literally using the exact same footsteps over and over again. It's not the same as tracks in the mud or in the snow. These are just really beaten down into the earth."
Intrigued, VanNiel and MacKenzie returned home to find that there was precious little scientific research regarding black bears carefully retracing their steps in the manner they had just observed in Massachusetts. They decided to involve the class in the project.
"This class is what's called project-based learning," VanNiel said. "We do the class around a real-life project. That's always the trick, trying to find something that 100 people haven't already done before.
"(The students) have done everything from look through peer-reviewed literature like journals and field guides, to actually talking to bear biologists throughout the country. There are definitely people that have seen (the retread trails), but there's no consensus on what the purpose of them are."
For their part, Nick and Valerie Wisniewski, the researchers at Walnut Hill in Massachusetts, believe the re-treaded tracks are an element of black bear breeding behavior, and refer to the tracks as "ritual trails."
VanNiel isn't so sure, instead subscribing to the theory that the phenomenon may be related to territorial markings - the black bears' own version of a "No Trespassing" sign.
Page 2 of 2 - "The (tracks) that we saw in Massachusetts were all associated with bite trees and heavily scratched trees," VanNiel pointed out. "There were sign-posts along the way, in a sense. It wasn't like this trail led from a bedding area to a feeding area. It would lead from scratched tree to scratched tree. I really think it has to do with territorial marking."
Canandaigua native Sara York, a student in the class, offered more possibilities.
"It could be a way of leaving a scent, which in turn ties into claiming the territory," said York, a double major in Environmental Studies and Natural Resource Conservation. "Some say the same trail is reused through generations as well, which then brings on more questions. Are young cubs taught this or do they do it naturally? For how many generations does this carry on? Is it just males? Is it just females? There are so many (possible) reasons behind it. We just don't know yet."
York and her classmates are hoping outdoorsmen can help shed some light on the issue this fall. VanNiel points to the data found in the states along New York's eastern border as evidence that the phenomenon could occur in the Empire State as well.
"There really should be no reason why we couldn't find them here, except that I think they're a little bit density-dependent," VanNiel said. "When you have a high population of bucks, you end up with lots more rubs and scrapes, not just because there's more bucks but because each individual buck is making more signs. They have to because of the competition. I think that these bear signs are somewhat density-dependent, also."
VanNiel's father owns property in Wayland. He and his dad took some time on the opening day of archery season to scour the woods for any sign of bear. They turned up a bitten tree, but no retread tracks.
VanNiel is hoping hunters all over the state will keep a sharp lookout this fall.
"I'm going to be out there walking around and in my tree stand the next couple months," he said. "Our hope is (to) involve more eyes out there."