Facets: How State, Local and Private worked together to keep a bear family safe


Submitted 6 months ago
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Worth Knowing

Tired of reading about endless partisan politics and allegations of wrong-doing on both sides of the aisle? This is a rare feel-good story. It's a story about how local government worked with state government and private citizens to do something good.

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You may recall that last spring Hanover, New Hampshire had a bear problem. While Hanover has always had bears - they were here before us - the bears hadn't always been a problem. But last spring a sow with 3 yearlings got into all sorts of mischief when they became accustomed to getting their food from people's bird feeders and garbage. It may have been cute and funny at the outset, but when 2 of the yearlings broke into a house on Thompson Terrace where there were children present at the time, it wasn't cute or funny anymore. Someone could get seriously hurt if something wasn't done about the foraging bears. 

Mark Laidre photo of break-in on Thompson Terrace in 2017

Cue the state. New Hampshire's Fish & Game Department has jurisdiction over issues relating to wild animal control. Fish & Game, as guardian of the state’s fish, wildlife and marine resources, enforces hunting regulations, collects road kill, deals with rabid raccoons, and studies the populations and health of New Hampshire's game and fish population to determine, for example, how many moose hunt permits to issue. And it's Fish & Game that is responsible for determining what to do when a bear family flirts with potentially tragic human confrontation. 

Last spring, Hanover worked with Fish & Game to try to problem solve the bear family problem. Michael Hinsley, Hanover Fire Department's Deputy Chief and the Town's Health Officer, with the support of Town Manager Julia Griffin, had been keeping Fish & Game up to date on the status of its 4 downtown bears. After the Thompson Terrace break-in, Fish & Game had to do something. The decision was made to euthanize all 4 bears. As Andrew Timmins, Fish & Game's lead bear biologist said, “When their behavior reaches a certain point, it is tough to be wild bears again. As the state’s bear biologist, I don’t think it would be prudent to move them to another area.” So the execution order was issued. 

Of course there was an outcry. What had these beautiful beasts done but continue to devour the easy pickings dull-witted Hanoverians left out for them? Who could blame them for preferring pizza crusts to acorns? It wasn't the bears' fault. More than 10,000 people signed a petition to spare the family.

Enter New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who issued a stay of execution. All were saved. The 3 yearlings were captured by Fish & Game over Memorial Weekend and re-located to Pittsburg in northern New Hampshire. Sadly, one was killed by a hunter a little over 2 weeks later. Fish & Game were unable to locate Momma Bear because, they believed, she'd left the area to mate. It seemed like a happy ending was in sight.

Until this spring. At the very end of March, Michael Hinsley of the Hanover Fire Department determined that Momma Bear was not only back in residence in the Mink Brook area near downtown Hanover, but she had given birth to a litter of 4 cubs. Her den was close to multiple residences, and there was no question she was going to start foraging through bird feeders, garbage and pet food left outside. This was especially true since Hinsley, despite his best and most tactful efforts, was still struggling to get certain downtown residents to secure food sources. The possibility of a tragic confrontation between Momma Bear and a person or their pet loomed large. The notion that she might bring her cubs along on her food foraging adventures was particularly frightening. Everyone knows a mother bear will protect her young. The specter of euthanasia re-appeared.

None of the parties involved with the bears last year wanted a repeat of prior events. With a go-ahead from Town Manager Griffin, Fish & Game's Timmins coordinated with Hinsley. They tracked the bear, located her den, installed a game camera and monitored her activities over several days. After consulting with Ben Kilham of Lyme, a noted bear biologist, and by observing her behavior and routine, they were able to pinpoint where she was so they could sedate her and put a radio collar on her. 

Sporting her new collar and tag

Hinsley also re-doubled his efforts to work with residents to educate them about bears, and lock down potential food sources. Hinsley gives a lot of credit to the Town's messaging to residents. He also credits Dartmouth College for its messaging to students and staff living off campus about the importance of securing bird feeders, garbage and recycling. According to Hinsley, the main difference this “bear-season” and last year's has been the positive response of the neighborhoods who stepped up to send the message home to some of the less willing residents. “The strength of a few actively involved, motivated, members of a neighborhood in a municipality, clearly can bring change faster and more efficiently than any municipal ordinance or employee” Hinsley said.

Now town and state officials can keep track of where Momma Bear - who has been fondly named “Mink” after the Mink Brook area in which she resides - is spending her time. If she wanders beyond the neighborhood where Hinsley has successfully worked with residents to remove bear-magnet food sources, they will know and make sure to alert other residents to the bear's presence. When the snow has finally melted up north so food sources are easier to locate, Fish & Game will sedate and re-locate the entire family someplace out of harm's way. This will probably occur within a few weeks. 

It's so nice to hear about people working together instead of at cross purposes. Thank you, Hanover - and particularly Michael Hinsley - for working with Fish & Game and Hanover residents to avoid another death sentence for Momma Bear's family. Thank you, Andrew Timmins, for working with Hanover to find a safe and humane solution. Thank you, Hanover residents, for being responsible about securing your food sources to keep these animals safe.

You've gotten this far. How about some photos? 

Tree climbing practice

Monkeying around

Hinsley keeping tabs on Momma and cubs

Momma and 2 of the 4 cubs this morning (May 3)

You’re reading Facets, a blog that features brief portraits of the people and the places - and occasionally the animals - that collectively comprise the Upper Valley. Each one of these people and places - and animals - is a facet of the Upper Valley. If you'd like to read about more facets, subscribe here.

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