After 32 years with DEC, Region 4 Wildlife Biologist, Larry Bifaro is retiring on February 4. Larry graduated from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) with a bachelor of science in Environmental Forest Biology in 1988. He began his career with DEC as a fisheries technician at the DeBruce Fish Hatchery in Livingston Manor in 1989.
Relocating from the Buffalo area, Larry settled with his family in Walton in Delaware County. He transitioned to work as a wildlife biologist in Region 4’s Stamford office in 1998. He became Regional Bear Biologist in 2000 and has truly shined in that capacity ever since.
I know first-hand of Larry’s outstanding work as a bear biologist as I worked with him when I served as the Division of Law Enforcement representative on DEC’s statewide Bear Management Team. We also worked together on the Deer Team and Big Game Teams. He in his capacity as a big game biologist, as I represented law enforcement concerns to the teams with a focus upon public safety and efficacy of proposed regulations.
Larry recently remarked, “Handling bears was probably the best part of the job although not always during the best of circumstances.”
When Larry says, “handling bears,” he’s chiefly talking about trapping nuisance bears, although another component involved activities like visiting bear dens of sows with cubs, gathering biometric data, collaring, then tracking individual bears for purposes of research.
His reference to less-than-ideal circumstances refers to serious nuisance bear conflicts and the occasional, but inevitable need to euthanize some bears whose dangerous behavior could not be altered by aversive conditioning.
For context on the topic, NY currently has a very healthy and stable black bear population, but that was not always the case.
The black bear population in NY hit its modern era low in the mid-1970’s. Bear biologists closed all bear hunting seasons in 1976 and 1977 to induce its recovery.
Fast forward to the late 80’s into the 1990’s and NY bear biologists had a problem on their hands; that of exploding bear populations, not only in NY, but adjoining New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Regulations lagged and nuisance bear issues became near epidemic in some areas of the state.
A statewide Bear Management Team was created and was charged with creation of a Nuisance Bear Response Manual to address the problem. The original draft of the document was about to be adopted when we discovered the manual was filled with language that was more of a guide to the non-response to real-time nuisance bear issues. DEC biologists would have had little to no responsibility or for that matter, much ability to respond to active and potentially dangerous human-bear conflicts.
Recognizing this serious flaw, Larry, myself, eminent bear biologist Dick Henry led the charge to make sure the Nuisance Bear Response Manual accomplished what its title dictated. The result was a document with a proscription for a robust, active DEC response to nuisance bear conflicts.
Larry’s been involved in the creation of all the current bear season paradigms in an effort to forestall further bear range expansion and help to reduce nuisance issues. That included an expanded educational effort, a lot of field time in local, rural communities, and all the trapping and removing of bears that posed a significant threat to public safety.
Moving on to the nuts-and-bolts management of NY’s then exploding expansion of our black bear population, Larry always advocated for a timely, aggressive, forward looking approach to black bear management. Careful not to over-liberalize harvest, yet always seeking to prevent population increase beyond capacity leading to unchecked increases in the bear population.
This strategy opened up Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) in NY to bear hunting that had experienced dramatic increases in bear populations. These WMUs had been previously closed to bear hunting when the population was in steep decline. It eventually led to all WMUs in the state being open to bear hunting.
Most significantly, the strategy created the early firearms season for bear in selected WMUs. This proved to be an effective tool to actively manage the heretofore uncontrolled increase in the black bear population and ever expansion of their range.
You can’t argue with success. Currently, this management approach resulted in the healthy, stable bear population we enjoy in NY today.
During the height of nuisance bear activity, Larry conducted outreach to local law enforcement educating them on appropriate response to nuisance bears. He also worked closely with area conservation officers to assist in coordinating an effective joint response.
This was especially important during the incident of the “Albany bear.” A young male bear wandered into the City of Albany, was injured when hit by a car, then “treed” in a densely populated Albany neighborhood. The bear quickly garnered live press, and got its own twitter handle and Facebook page which made the joint bear response all the more hyperbolic.
It was Larry Bifaro’s voice of reason, extoling on-camera the need to adhere to wildlife science as he addressed the press at the scene of the incident.
Now that he’s leaving state service, Larry is concerned that given the current state hiring freeze, his position will go unfilled. Complicating things is the recent retirement of Matt Merchant, his dedicated counterpart in bear management at Region 3’s New Paltz office. Losing two of only seven regional bear biologists and the institutional knowledge they take with them, will likely put the bear management program at a disadvantage.
It’s incumbent upon us to ensure that our license dollars in the Conservation Fund are well spent. Let’s hold DEC and the Conservation Fund Advisory Board accountable so they fulfill their mandate and replace critically needed staff like bear biologists Larry Bifaro and Matt Merchant.
I recall when Larry was responsible for the design and implementation of regional stakeholder group meetings to gather input, issues, and concerns of those affected by black bear populations. He always kept the needs of sportsman paramount in his decisions, as deftly noted in his farewell to area sportsmen:
“I just wanted to say that working with the sportsmen and women of Region 4 has been one of the more gratifying parts of my job. As a hunter and fisherman myself, I always tried to make the concerns of those who pursue our fish and game a high priority. Though the concerns of hunters are often diverse and complex, I always thought highly of those who participated in dialogue the most, and that is the organized sportsman.
I wish you all well in your future hunts. My wife and I will be pursuing our fish and game in coastal North Carolina from now on.”
Join me in thanking Larry for leaving us with a well-run bear program, and for his years of dedicated service as he begins the next chapter in the sunny game lands of North Carolina.
Happy Hunting, Fishing, and Trapping until next time.
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