Wildlife Watch: Living in harmony with black bears

By  | 

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) It's been a black bear-filled summer so far, with numerous sightings around the state, including urban areas like Burlington.

Our Ike Bendavid spoke with Vermont Fish and Wildlife black bear project leader Forrest Hammond to dig deeper into the rise of bear- human encounters.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Are we seeing an uptick in bears in the state?

Forrest Hammond: Yes we are. We are seeing an uptick in people's contact with bears. We probably don't have any more bears over the past five years then we did, but the last few decades the numbers have been increasing, but we have kind of stabilized. But what we are seeing -- it's a time of transition in Vermont with bears and people. The bears used to live in the mountains in very remote settings, there were very few interactions, very few conflicts. Just within the past 10 to 15 years, the number has greatly increased. They seem to be increasing almost every year. What we have got is the bears have come out of the mountains now and they occupy most of the towns in Vermont, so it's higher densities of people in those areas. Bears are living in back yards, they are learning that back yards are a source of food, easy food for them.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Is this a part of the changing landscape here in Vermont?

Forrest Hammond: Oh yeah, and some of it's people moving to more remote areas where it was just bears in the past. We also have had the bears move into areas that have never seen bears before. And so the people get pretty excited with a bear just wandering through the back yard.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Is this the new normal -- seeing bears in urban areas?
Forrest Hammond: It probably is for Vermont. All across North America communities have learned to live with bears being there, and I am convinced that people can do it to. We just have a ways to go. The whole thing with, 'Take down your bird feeder, secure your garbage' is a mantra that we just repeat over and over again, and we need to.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: You mentioned two things there -- getting rid of bird feeders early and locking up garbage. Has this wet spring contributed to bears not finding food?
Forrest Hammond: Actually there is probably more food this spring with a wet spring then there was last year where we went into a drought really fast. They eat a lot of vegetation -- it's very succulent. But the same thing for bears, they can live on that, but boy, they would rather have that left over steak or corn on the cob from your back yard garbage.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: When people see these bears in their urban back yards -- is tranquilizing the bear the next option?
Forrest Hammond: The only time we would come and actually destroy a bear, if we get a report that's a real safety issue, we'll come in and check and just see what's going on and as a last resort we might remove that bear.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Have you had any reports of bears getting aggressive towards humans?
Forrest Hammond: Very few. We do get some reports, but usually when we check them it's more of a case of people overreacting and a bear has been sighted in a back yard and neighborhood and people feel threatened, mostly because they don't understand why the bear's there and what their reaction should be, what they should do if a bear comes

Reporter Ike Bendavid: As a bear expert, if you see one in your back yard what do you suggest our viewers do?
Forrest Hammond: I think you should be thrilled that you saw a bear. It's our largest carnivore, it's a unique animal, it's a beautiful animal, but you have a responsibility as well. If you see one in your back yard, ask yourself why is that here. Do I have an easy source of food that's drawing it in? And then Instead of grabbing your camera to take pictures, actually step in your doorway or window, bang pots and pans, hollar at it, even tell the bear it's not wanted there. That this is your home range, not the bears. And when it leaves, take down your bird feeder until this winter.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: What's next? The population is up, they are getting used to urban environments -- what's next for black bears in Vermont?
Forrest Hammond: I really think that people over time will learn more about bear behavior. There is a lot of information about what to do if black bears live in your neighborhood, or if your hiking and you encounter them or if you've got bees or chickens. Our website is full of it -- vtfishandwildlife.com -- to report an incident. There is all sorts of information and advice and we will even return a call if people want us to.