By Jen Butson
Stephen Brown sat down to eat lunch on the deck of his Sunrise Drive home on a sunny Friday earlier this month. With his back to the wooded area bordering his backyard, he didn’t see what was coming. But his wife did.
Kim Brown walked out the glass doors to the deck. She pointed and stammered, barely able to get the word out.
Stephen Brown turned to see a black bear that had moseyed up within 10 feet of him. It appeared to have no intention of leaving.
“We’re worried,” said Brown, who is on his neighborhood association’s board of directors. “It’s early in the season and we have 23 houses with a ton of kids who play in the woods and on the street.”
Brown himself has two children who were previously free to roam on the 20 acres of nature trails the subdivision shares. The family had used two-way radios to communicate with the kids, but now the children, ages 10 and 5, are not allowed to venture out of their yard alone.
“They can’t go unless I am down there with them,” he said. “The black bear is not as dangerous as a grizzly, but one swat from any 200-pound bear is all it takes.”
Black bears are mainly vegetarians, but they can attack humans if provoked. Brown and his neighbors suspect that the bear visiting their backyards is a young bear, perhaps 2 years old and weighing between 125 and 200 pounds. He speculates that the bear is attempting to find easy sources of food, like bird feed or suet because his neighbors have recently found their feeders mangled.
Steve Parren, coordinator of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s Nongame and Natural Heritage Program, agrees that the bear is probably a young male who is looking for a quick meal.
“Bears make an appearance usually in the spring or fall, when they’re food stressed,” he said. “That this one is coming out midsummer makes me think this is a young male bear.”
Brown said what worried him the most was that the bear in his backyard showed no fear of approaching a human in broad daylight. “He’s young, and its 12 noon. He showed no fear of a grown man flashing away with a (digital) camera,” Brown said.
Concern for the bear and the safety of the neighborhood are issues that Parren said should be addressed preemptively.
“It’s becoming more common than it used to be,” he said. “We need to prevent developing a bear culture that’s no longer afraid of people but rather sees people as a source of food.”
The Sunrise at French Hill subdivision where Brown lives is located on the east end of Williston off U.S. Route 2. It borders two large undeveloped tracts of land: 200 acres used by the University of Vermont as a research area and 500 acres owned by the Catamount Family Center.
Brown and his neighborhood association have taken steps to prevent any more visits from unwanted wildlife. They have posted flyers with a list of items to remove from accessible areas of residents’ yards, like bird feed or garbage cans. They notified Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire and the Williston Police Department of the bear sightings.
Williston Police Sgt. Bart Chamberlain said he has received four complaints of meddling bears in Williston this summer.
"This is the time of year when momma bears kick out the 2- and 3-year-olds," he said.
In addition to the Sunrise subdivision, bears have been spotted in Williston on French Hill and in the Meadow Ridge subdivision off South Road. Chamberlain said a bear even climbed onto one woman's porch at the Williston Woods senior housing development on North Williston Road.
"If you spot one that keeps coming back, the best thing you can do is stay inside, call us or call the Department of Fish and Wildlife," Chamberlain said.
Parren estimates that Vermont has a population of about 4,000 black bears.
He recommends keeping domestic pets indoors, leashed or fenced in. If a wild animal is spotted, keep your distance; use binoculars rather than trying to approach any wild animal.
Parren said taking simple precautions can deter a black bear encounter. Removing barbecue utensils, dog food or other edible items from lawns and decks will help prevent the unwanted guests. He also advises elevating bird feeders so they do not provide easy pickings for bears.
“They’re looking for easy food,” Parren said. “If it’s not easy, they won’t even try.”