Last spring I was captivated by a local expert’s prediction that within the next five years, black bears will be living in the Syracuse metro area. This casual observation came as part of a lecture involving the link between increasing tree canopy coverage in a given city and the number and type of urban wildlife, as the increase in trees makes the city more hospitable to critters of various sorts. I’m sure I’m grossly oversimplifying a sophisticated relationship here, but the general idea I took away was:  more tree canopy means bigger animals, and more of the little ones. 

Since then I’ve been speculating about what a city like Syracuse might do to prepare for the arrival of urban bears. Urban wildlife, particularly deer, already conflict with human residents in a number of ways. Deer, though, are also beloved by many, who see them as beautiful and graceful (which they are). This leads to vigorous debate with other residents who see deer as garden-munching, traffic-accident-causing hazards (which they are), as well as carriers of Lyme disease (which they only sort of are, but that’s another post). 

Bears, though – bears! Even though the black bear is the least scary US bear, it’s still plenty scary to us tenderfoot Easterners who think of bears as something glimpsed in a national park vacation. I’m a lifelong outdoors person, but I’ve spent nearly all my life in the Midwest or Northeast, and I’ve seen a black bear once – briefly, from the car, in the Adirondacks, a wilderness (really, a “wilderness”) where everyone expects bears to be. A bear in the backyard, on the playground or loping down Main Street is an entirely different proposition. How do we live with the biggest and scariest urban wildlife? Can we co-exist with wild neighbors that aren’t just cute, but potentially dangerous? 

Perhaps the bigger question is whether we have any choice. Not long ago, coyotes were unheard of in Eastern metro areas, but now they are common, if elusive. If more tree canopy brings more wildlife, within the context of the re-foresting Northeast, and your city, like Syracuse, has tree canopy increasing (something of an anomaly – also another post), then… here come the bears…?

So now what? What would a Bear City be like? To borrow from erstwhile Detroit mayor Coleman Young, Anchorage today is your city tomorrow. It may seem ludicrous to draw parallels between postindustrial Syracuse and what my Alaskan friend and former student Meghan Holtan calls “the OG wild city” way up north in Alaska, but when it comes to urban bears, Anchorage knows how it’s done. Enter the fascinating Anchorage Urban Bears project by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In their words, this study “has provided unique insights into the lives and habits of urban bears through the use of video cameras attached to GPS collars, similar to ‘GoPro’ cameras that film from the viewpoint of the person wearing the camera.” The project’s online Story Map combines GIS, text, and video to illustrate the habits and habitats of several black bears (!) and brown/Grizzly bears (!!!) within metro Anchorage.

Take a look for yourself here.