This year, as bears become more brazen in their search for easy food sources, Vermont Fish and Wildlife officials are emphasizing the importance of eliminating human-produced food sources, including birdseed, trash, dog food, and compost.
Bear behavior has changed significantly in recent years, due in large part to bears becoming more familiar with the easy access to food sources on human property, said local game warden Sergeant Keith Gallant.
“It only takes one or two people to … allow this to happen, for the bear to habituate into this type of behavior for possibly the rest of [its life],” said Gallant. Another factor in the large number of human-bear encounters this year is the late start to spring, which delayed the growth of some of bears’ natural food sources, according to a press release from Vermont Fish and Wildlife last month.
Gallant also explained that a bear’s life revolves primarily around finding food, so when they find easy access to food, many of the bear’s natural inhibitions are lowered, including their fear of humans.
Pleasant Street Bear
In Randolph, at least one bear has been visiting homes on Pleasant Street this year.
Paul Putney said a bear first came to his Pleasant Street home last week.
“We’ve lived here and fed birds for 10 years, and … certainly [we have] never had a bear before,” said Putney.
But a week ago Thursday, he found his bird feeders on the ground, suggesting that a bear had stopped by to look for a snack.
The Putneys emptied their birdfeeders after the first visit, but an outdoor camera showed that the bear paid a second visit Saturday night, around 4 a.m., said Putney.
“He came in, walked around our patio area, walked up to where the birdfeeders were … then he walked around the porch looking for food, and stood up on his hind legs … he looked pretty big!”
Putney said the bear was only at his house for about two minutes on Saturday night, but came close enough to the house that he reached out to Gallant for advice.
“Bears pose very little threat to humans,” said Gallant in an interview with The Herald this week, adding that even so, encouraging bears to come into towns does increase the likelihood of someone getting hurt, even though bears are not predatory by nature.
Allowing bears to build habits by finding meals left out by humans, said Gallant, is particularly harmful when it comes to sows training cubs how to find meals.
“If a sow trains two or three cubs to look for food in people’s yards, then the population of bears with [that habit] triples in size within just a couple of years,” said Gallant.
Gallant emphasized that the most problematic aspect of leaving food sources out for bears to peruse is that it encourages them to spend more time in areas populated by humans, and less time foraging for food in the woods, which can result in bears’ lives being endangered, said Gallant.
“It’s a fairly high threshold at which a bear can legally be shot” said Gallant, “Under the law, you can kill a bear that is attempting to kill one of your domestic animals, or that is trying to break into a building of yours. But that is a behavior that occurs when people … are negligent.”
Gallant said a frequent scenario is that people put their trash outside, and when a bear gets into it, they clean it up and drag the trash can to the garage, creating a scent trail leading to the building.
“So the bear follows the scent trail, and now it wants to get inside and find out if there’s still something in there to eat,” said Gallant. “That’s putting the bear’s life in immediate risk, unnecessarily.”
Bears and Compost
Sharon-based Cat Buxton has had bears visit her yard this year. As a soil and compost educator, she explained that it’s very important to consider wildlife when building a compost pile.
“It’s important to follow the three-to-one carbon to nitrogen ratio,” wrote Buxton in an email to The Herald. “A fed bear is a dead bear,” she added.
The carbon material, which can include straw, dead leaves, and, in smaller amounts, sawdust, can help disguise food waste and combat smells that might otherwise attract bears. Buxton noted that it’s important to make sure all sides of the compost pile are thickly covered with carbon material, including the bottom of the bin.
Gallant noted that a properly installed electric fence can be a useful tool in preventing bears from accessing not only compost piles, but also beehives, dumpsters, chicken runs, and other potential food sources for bears.
Other Bear Sightings
Bears have been visiting other villages this year as well, including Rochester, Stockbridge, Sharon, Strafford, and Barnard.
Seven-year-old Randolph resident Isabel DeFlorio recently saw her first black bear while exploring the trails in Graniteville with her dad.
“It was the cutest bear in the world,” said DeFlorio.
Olivia Whalen said a sow and three cubs have been visiting her family’s house off Route 73 in Rochester.
“It’s been about a month and half since we started seeing them along the tree line,” said Whalen, but during a couple of nights last week, the bears started coming into the yard and getting closer to the buildings.
“I don’t mind listening to [the bears] … it’s quite nice to hear their communication,” said Whalen, “But we have little ones and a dog, so I’d prefer them to stay out of the yard.”
Stuart Kinney of Braintree, who described encouraging bears to stay in the wild as one of his hobbies, echoed Gallant’s concerns of bears’ lives being put in danger.
“If somebody gets hurt, it’s the bear that will pay the price,” said Kinney, “Unless we all get together and make an effort to keep bears wild, this can just keep escalating.”
Kinney noted that in some places, including Alaska, feeding bears, even unintentionally, can result in a fine.
“We really don’t have bad bears, we just have a lot of people who don’t realize the consequences of feeding bears,” said Kinney.
Gallant noted that while he’s happy to talk with people about how to discourage bears from coming onto their property, ultimately it’s up to individuals to make sure that they are not making potential food sources accessible to bears.
He also encourages people to work with their neighbors and community members to help make sure everyone is properly containing potential food sources for bears.