Bears

Last week I drove about an hour away to a community center in Jackson, New Hampshire to attend a lecture given by a bear specialist for the State of New Hampshire and the White Mountains from the US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services.

Despite a week of warm temperatures, the bears in our woods are still hibernating, according to USDA’s Nancy Conneau, although bears have already been sighted about 2 hours south of us.  Weather-wise, we have only another week or two before we have to bring in our bird feeders.  You see, bears have one thing – – and only one thing – – on their mind:  FOOD.  They are in an endless struggle to fill their stomachs in the Spring to recover the 30% body fat loss from the winter; and in the late summer and fall, they must increase their body fat by 40% to account for growth, development, and to tide them over during the coming winter’s hibernation (and if they are female, the biennial birthing/nursing process).

A very easy meal for bears is to visit the bird feeder, which contains all sorts of yummy seeds full of protein and fat.  Which is a problem, because bears have a phenomenal memory.  And once they find a bird feeder (or dumpster, or greasy bbq grill, or dog food) in a specific location, they will visit that location daily, hopeful that the homeowner will think that the bear was scared when he ran away from the loud noise caused by the homeowner banging on pots to keep the bear away.  Hah!  The bear was running from the noise, but he is simply waiting until the noise goes away and then, ever persistent, he will visit again and again because he cares more about food than noise.  Their sense of smell is amazing – Ms. Conneau claimed that a black bear can smell a sunflower seed from half a mile away!

Bird feeders are such a problem – – Ms. Conneau referred to them as “bear feeders” – – that several local towns have had to adopt ordinances outlawing homeowners’ use of bird feeders from April 1 – Dec. 1.  People have respected the ordinances . . . and the bears have moved on . . . to chickens!  With the increase in interest in raising chickens (in my area, several houses have hand-inked cardboard “Fresh Eggs $2.00/dozen” signs),  bears in their never-ending quest for food have been hitting chicken coops.  They go after the chicken feed – – and the chickens.  Last summer, it seemed wherever I went (post office, library, Town office), the dead chicken count was the hot topic on everyone’s lips, and the culprit was  not the usual fox or coyote – – it was bears.

Ms. Conneau’s recommendation:  store birdseed in galvanized cans, preferably in a locked garage or storage shed, and surround the coop with an electrified fence.  While I don’t raise chickens, I do have several beehives on my property, and we do have a solar-powered electrified fence that has kept the bears at bay . . . so far.

“I had to shoot three bears at three different locations last year,” says my Bee Man, who owns and tends to the hives on my property.  “Once they get into the honey, not even an electric fence will stop them.  They are very determined, and the quest for filling their stomachs overrides any discomfort, whether from the sting of a bee or an electric fence.”

One problem is that bears are, well, so darn cute.  It’s fun to watch bears, especially when they appear so reliably at places like a dumpster.  What people don’t realize is that by feeding a bear, they are essentially condemning it to death.  As bears become habituated to a dumpster, or a neighborhood, they gradually lose their fear of people.  And in their never-ending search for food, they become increasingly daring.

The lady in the seat next to me raised her hand.  “Last year, I had a bear encounter,” she began.

It was a hot summer day so all the windows in the house were open.  She was in the backyard, mowing the lawn.  She decided to take a break, and went into the front door for a cold drink.  She saw mud on the stairs and thought, “Oh, Kyle (her teenage son) must’ve come home early.  He never wipes his feet!”  She followed the muddy trail up the carpeted stairs, all the while yelling, “Kyle!  Darn you, I told you to wipe your feet!” and when she got to the top, she came literally nose to nose with – – a bear!  Slowly and quietly she backed down the stairs, went outside, and called 911 from her cellphone.

“They sent Fish & Game, and they spent 45 minutes getting him out of the house (through the window).”  But all was not well.  Within 15 minutes the bear came back out of the woods, and tried to re-enter the house.  “Fish & Game had to shoot it right in my yard,” she said.  “I’m just glad they didn’t have to kill it inside my house.”

In some cases, nuisance bears are trapped, sent by truck and released by the Canadian border.  But it’s not really a great solution, because many of the bears return within days, covering great distances.  Females’ territory usually covers 5 – 10 miles (1 – 2 miles when cubs are young); males’ territory covers 10 miles but can cover up to 20 miles.  Although we think of them as lumbering creatures, they can run up to 35 mph.

Ms. Conneau suggested that if you really want to keep your windows open during hot summer months, to lay ammonia-soaked rags on the window sills.  Ensure you don’t have trash lying around, even if it means more trips to the dump (no, there is no trash pickup in rural communities), and meanwhile dousing the cans with ammonia as well.   (I should add that when we built our house, I was mindful of bears, and I did not put any large windows on the ground floor by design.  I am also extremely strict with my grandchildren about not leaving any food outside when they come to visit.)

The good news is that, while black bears in New Hampshire and the White Mountains are certainly dangerous animals that are capable of killing humans, the last time someone was killed by a black bear in New Hampshire was in 1784.  (Grizzly and polar bears are much more threatening and dangerous to people, but they do not exist in the Eastern U.S.)  There are approximately 5,000 bears in New Hampshire, with most in the White Mountains.  And Maine has the largest black bear population in the continental United States:   25,000 to  30,000!  (About 3,000 – 4,000 bears are killed every year in Maine during bear hunting season.  I know of five bears killed in my woods during hunting season in 2012).

Bear cubs are born in January or February in dens during hibernation.  Usually one or two cubs are born to a bear (the female is known as a “sow”), but last year there were four sows in New Hampshire that had five cubs each!  The cubs stay very close to the mother (usually in a tree while the mother forages) for the first 3 – 4 months; they move a little farther from the mother as they mature.  Cubs remain with their mother for 18 months, reentering the den with her their second winter, but the coming Spring they are on their own and must find their own territory.  They will find a mate in their second Fall and so the cycle continues.

One doesn’t want to get between a bear and her cubs.  Ms. Conneau recommended that hikers (and their pet dogs) should wear a noisemaker such as a bell to alert bears to their presence.  Black bears usually retreat before people are aware of them.

So other than the cuteness factor, what good are bears?   Bears affect the ecosystem in a number of positive ways.  But put simply, according to the Fish & Game website, “the most important function is the knowledge that if you live in an area that can support a healthy bear population, that area is also healthy enough to support you.”

*see my archived post about a bear encounter at https://midlifeinmaine.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/bde-mr-bear/

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