Bear incidents are on the rise in Vermont. What should you do to avoid them?
Spring has finally arrived. The longer days and warmer weather mean, Vermont's black bears are coming out of hibernation — and they're hungry.
That's been an issue in recent years because biologists say the animals are increasingly associating people with food.
Human-bear incidents have been on the rise, according to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department — with an unusually high number of home break-ins and two attacks last year.
So the department is urging Vermonters to take more steps to reverse that trend and better coexist with bears across landscapes.
To learn more, Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki spoke with Jaclyn Comeau, Fish and Wildlife’s bear biologist Jaclyn Comeau. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: You've said that bears are long-living and intelligent animals, and that there may be a culture shift with older bears teaching younger ones how to search for food near people. Can you share with us about what your team is observing?
Jaclyn Comeau: Yeah, that's actually something coming out from other black bear researchers. You know, across the country we are seeing this shift that as bears get older, they seem to be more inclined to engage in what we consider conflict behaviors, where they're searching for human foods. And as we leave these human foods, they start to figure out that it's a lot easier to look for bird feeders in a residential area than it is maybe foraging for nuts on the forest floor.
How does that increase the urgency to address human-bear conflicts in Vermont?
Our safety is usually not an issue in these situations. But in rare situations, people can be injured by bears, as what happened last year. More often, it's actually the bears that are put at risk. In these years, where we experience a lot of conflicts between people and bears, we see more bears that are killed directly in those conflict situations. We see more bears that are killed on the roads here in Vermont. We know that is in part, at least, because bears are searching for human foods. It means that they're encountering roads more frequently.
I'm glad you mentioned the bear's perspective, because I want to take a step back. I wonder if you'll walk us through what bears experience when they lumber out of their dens at the end of hibernation, as we're seeing right now in Vermont.
These animals have just spent a number of months not eating and just living off of their stored body fat. For certain females, they've given birth to cubs while in those winter dens. They are coming out really hungry and looking for food. This time of year when they're coming out, there is very little food other than the residual acorns or beech nuts that may have been available from the previous fall. They're really kind of biding their time until the spring green-up happens, when they start using all the various vegetation that begins growing.
How are other factors, like habitat loss or shorter winters tied to climate change, affecting the likelihood someone will encounter a bear?
Climate change is something we're concerned about. And of course, habitat loss and habitat degradation are big issues for black bears who are traveling constantly to where there are concentrations of food. So they need access to a connected landscape where they can safely travel long distances. As the habitat gets more and more chopped up and developed, the available foods that are there for them become limited. It is a concern.
Then again, a lot of the foods that they rely on come from plants, which are very connected to the weather, droughts, flooding, hot temperatures and cold temperatures. All those things can have serious impacts on how plants grow, and the fruits that those plants are able to produce. And of course, even outside of climate change, there's always seasonal variation to how productive bears' wild foods are. We do see that in years where we see decreased production and acorns and beech nuts specifically. We tend to see more conflicts in those years when there's just less wild calories on the landscape for bears.
So the big question is, Jacyln, what should Vermonters do to protect themselves, their property and of course, the bears?
The biggest thing is to understand what are the things in your home or in your community that might be drawing a bear in? The reports that we receive from the public strongly show us that garbage is the biggest source of conflicts between people and bears. Food scraps going into our compost is also a big issue here in Vermont. And you know, when we look at food scraps in combination with garbage — that makes up well over half of the calls we receive every year. Bird feeders, of course, are the other really big one that I think most people are aware of. And then backyard chickens are the other really big attractant that brings bears into backyards. So understanding that those are the major attractants, and then learning the steps to either remove those or secure them on your property.
And for bird feeders, it's easy. It means taking down your bird feeder by the end of March, and putting it away until next December. And I understand that can be disappointing for folks. You know, birds are these beautiful, fascinating animals to watch. But we strongly recommend that people consider alternate ways to attract birds to their backyard. We ask people to consider landscaping to attract birds, instead of putting out feeders. And then with garbage, the key is just secure storage — some sort of really sturdy structure where you can keep a locked door that keeps a bear out. With compost, there's a whole host of recommendations that we have. But again, the key behind that is just minimizing the odor of your compost. And then we really recommend people invest in a tumbler or some sort of secure structure to keep the compost in. And then with backyard chickens, you know, electric fencing is a must.
One last question for you, Jaclyn. What happens if Vermonters can't help curb this trend? And we continue to see more and more human-bear conflicts?
I am optimistic that we can. Other researchers who have really focused in on this effort have found some success. They've found that if enough people start being more proactive and diligent about removing and securing their attractants, you can experience a meaningful reduction in conflicts with bears. And I think one of the great things about Vermont is how engaged the citizens are and how caring they are for Vermont wildlife and natural resources. So again, I'm really optimistic that with the right assistance and information, most Vermonters are going to take this seriously and do more to help our bears and be good neighbors with our bears and ultimately with each other.
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