Bear Moon’s Rising

It’s Saturday afternoon, sky blue, sun shining, breeze cool, moon waxing toward it’s full harvest splendor in the midnight sky. Making my rounds, I pull into Clarkdale for peaches. The place is hopping, parking lot full, but I find a space and back in. Myself, I always like my chances better than backing out.

Inside, tall, lanky, Ben Clark, always smiling, is talking to customers and rearranging table-top boxes of fruit for sale behind the till. We meet eyes and exchange friendly greetings. I had approached the West Deerfield orchard from the south on Upper Road, passing a couple of his small Cortland apple orchards near the outflow of Hawks Road and, preferring Cortlands above all others, I tell him it’s time to start harvesting them. The trees look overburdened with ripe, red fruit.

“Yeah,” he replies. “The bears are aware of it, too. Which reminds me, just yesterday a customer traveling here came across Stillwater Bridge and was all excited to have seen a bear swimming across the Deerfield River. It was headed south, quite a sight, she said

I’m sure. Black bears are beautiful creatures to behold when they’re not tearing up garbage bags in your garage, snapping off front-yard apple limbs or destroying expensive backyard bird feeders. Plus, every once in a while, under the right circumstances, a sow will charge hikers who get between her and her cubs. Although I can’t recall any such encounters that have actually drawn human blood in this state, it can happen, and has resulted in rare fatalities over the years. Not here … yet.

The last Bay State bear-population was computed in 2011, when it was determined that there were more than 4,000 statewide. How many more is anyone’s guess. Some say many more. No one seems to think less. Truth is, no one really knows. My suspicion is that the state is low-balling us.

Although it may not still hold true, there was a day not so long ago during the bear resurgence in this state when the western Franklin/Hampshire County hilltowns held more bears than anywhere else. Judging from many recent close encounters reported in the news from densely populated neighborhoods in Northampton and Easthampton, even West Springfield and Westfield, there’s no doubt the western Pioneer Valley hills still hold a hefty number of the black, furry beasts. There’s no shortage east of the Connecticut River, either.

Hunting is the only population-regulating tool available to state wildlife officials aiming to limit bear/human conflict to a bare minimum, and the first segment of the split September/November season opened Tuesday. The problem with hunting as the primary safeguard against bear overpopulation is that the hunter-pool is minimal, not even close to deer, turkey, bird and waterfowl hunting. Thus hunters never meet the harvest goals required to reduce and stabilize the population. Well aware of this dynamic, state officials in recent years made bears fair game to deer hunters carrying a special bear permit. Although this new measure helps, it appears that deer hunters will never make enough of an impact to make a big difference.

Now get this: there’s trouble brewing on our northern border, where Vermont’s bear density of one per three square miles is among the nation’s highest. Throw in two other bordering states — New Hampshire and Upstate New York — where bears are also doing quite well, thank you, and it becomes crystal clear that Massachusetts bear-management officials have a steep hill to climb. When you consider the inevitability that young, wayward males (boars) born in the Green, White and Adirondack Mountains will be pushed out of their natal woods by dominant competitors, is it not obvious that some will eventually spillover into Massachusetts?

We’re talking about towns like Monroe, Rowe, Heath, Hawley, Charlemont, Buckland, Shelburne, Greenfield, Colrain, Leyden, Bernardston, Gill, Conway, Whately and Deerfield, not to mention towns on the other side of the Connecticut River, such as Northfield, Montague and Sunderland. In none of those towns — or Warwick, Erving, Orange, Shutesbury and Leverett — are bears a rare sight. Which doesn’t mean you may by chance catch one crossing the road or destroying your bird feeder or fleeing from spring skunk-cabbage feeding grounds. No, even better, in any of those places, you’re just as apt to catch one strolling across the town common or some schoolyard ball field.

Myself, I have not seen a bear this summer in my Greenfield Meadows neighborhood, but not because they’re not lurking. No, I just haven’t happened to see one yet. Last week I found evidence of bear activity when I passed a fresh pile of black scat beneath oak trees with acorns on the ground along my daily walk. Also, a neighboring farm having problems with deer eating squash, pumpkins and melons is also being visited by bears. Concerned about crop damage, the farmer’s son-in-law set up a trail camera overlooking the crops and discovered three bucks traveling together — an 8-pointer, 4-pointer and spikehorn — as well as a large black bear. So, bears are not far away on the home front. The cornfields are ripe and attractive, wild fruits, nuts and berries plentiful.

Which brings us back to that full September moon I began with. The Native American name for it is the Full Corn Moon, signifying ripe corn that’s ready to harvest. A later name for this same moon — one moat likely coined by foreign interlopers who now call North America home — is the Full Harvest Moon. But there’s a catch. Harvest Moons can appear in September or October, depending on timing related to the equinox. The moon closest to the Sept. 21 equinox is the Harvest Moon, sometimes September, other times October.

Well, this year’s September full moon will brighten the midnight sky tonight, 15 days before the equinox. Next month’s full moon occurs on Oct. 5, 14 days after the equinox. So, if you’re a strict follower of rules (I’m not), October’s moon with be a day closer to the equinox than tonight’s and  thus is the Harvest Moon. Who cares? Tonight is my Harvest Moon. To me, it just feels like harvest time, and apparently the deer and bears agree.

Who makes such rules, anyway? I just may go rogue and call it the Bear Moon.

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