Home News and Features Close Encounters of the BEAR Kind

Close Encounters of the BEAR Kind

This young black bear was photographed in East Montpelier by John Hall, Fish and Wildlife Department Outreach

If you haven’t had a run-in with a bear yourself this year in Washington County, you probably know someone who has.

Montpelier residents have been posting on social media reports of bears right in the middle of Montpelier — on State Street, Terrace Street, Barre Street, Towne Hill Road, and in Hubbard Park.

Hungry bears approaching homes

On June 21, someone posted that their neighbor “saw a bear run across our lawn and up to the backdoor.” This was on Greenock Avenue and around Towne Hill. Also that day, someone in Middlesex reporting a bear was at their residence and went through the dumpster, making a mess. Previously, on June 20, someone reported a “young bear seen up and down Terrace Street” that “put in an appearance in our yard this evening.”

Another person reported seeing a large black bear chasing a fawn across a field. And yet other sightings came in from Barre and Berlin.

In May, someone reported, “Last night a bear broke over our heavy-gauge wire fence into our barnyard and killed our four goats. Mike Scott (wildlife director with Fish and Wildlife Department), came out this morning and verified that it was a bear and that at this time of year they are very hungry and will eat anything. He said they frequently eat fawns, will smell food such as grain or black oil sunflower seeds from a mile away, and he also informed us that the bear population in Vermont is increasing. Our next door neighbors had their chicken coop broken into last night and the bear killed several of their birds. We want to thank Mike Scott for coming out so quickly and for giving us good advice on how to protect our animals in the future.”

Similar information was offered to The Bridge by Forrest Hammond, black bear biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.

“A whole lot of conditions have come together” to make the bears more visible this year than others. “Most females who could have cubs did have cubs,” Hammond said, explaining that the previous year there were fewer cubs born. This was due to alternating food supply conditions. Last year the bear food supply was good, so females had lots of babies over this winter. But this year, cold conditions lasted longer into March and April, causing late green-up and vegetation. Then, the dry conditions of the past few weeks have caused plants to wither and die. We had the “driest month of May on record. We’re in kind of a drought,” Hammond said.

So, while bears innately are wary of being around humans, they are hungry, and when their natural food supply is compromised they are attracted to the seed in bird feeders and to garbage.

“The more they find it, the more they find a good place to forage,” Hammond said. Then, when they find a regular supply of garbage, they may try to break into the house to get to the source.

Cubs up trees

Several people in the area have come home to find little black cubs up a tree in their yard. Mother bears train their cubs to flee up trees at her command if anyone comes close to them. If people leave them alone, they will just come down on their own, Hammond said. However, often a crowd of people will gather at the base of the tree, making the bears uncomfortable.

Hammond said he has received dozens of calls about bear cubs up trees. “We have had communities where females have moved into residential neighborhoods,” he said. This is prompting game wardens to practically beg people to take down their bird feeders. Bears can smell black oil sunflower seeds from a mile away.

“Bird feeders are almost a gateway drug for bears,” Hammond said. “Once they come into a backyard, hey, look for what else there is.” If a bear comes into your backyard, Hammond said to move to a safe location and make lots of noise to scare them off.

But perhaps the biggest unknown in attracting bears to domestic locations is the new state law requiring people to keep food scraps out of the wastestream.

Compost law

“I’m losing sleep over this,” Hammond said. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has been working with the Department of Environmental Conservation. Educating the public on how to compost without exacerbating the bear problem is a challenge. The key is to make sure the compost does not send out an attractive aroma. So, the following items should not be put in compost: bones, meat, fat, or even cantaloupe rinds, Hammond said. Also, make sure to put a lot of dry material, such as grass clippings and sawdust in relation to the food scraps. 

A good rule of thumb is three parts dry material to one part green material. And, covered compost containers are less inviting to bears than outdoor heaps. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department is working with the Department of Environmental Conservation to put together a press release to further educate the public on how to safely compost.

As the deadline for the food scrap ban approaches, Hammond says he worries about people just dumping food waste in the backyard. “It [the food scrap ban] is coming at the absolute worst time for us — there are a lot of bears,” Hammond said.