It was a beary miserable winter for Vermont’s bear population.
The warm weather and lack of substantial snowfall — hindering truly deep hibernation — left the state’s bear population foraging for longer than normal, state officials say, and now they’re desperate for high-value food sources after having to sustain themselves for such a long period.
And so, weeks after officials from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife department warned of increased bear contact this year, and advised against accidentally leaving food sources out, Williston was seemingly besieged by a rash of bear encounters.
“He was really big, he was a couple-of-hundred pound bear. It was the biggest black bear I’ve ever seen,” said Sarah Forbes, about the Oak Knoll Road encounter her family had in early May.
“I’m a little embarrassed because I did have the feeders out – and they were almost empty and I thought, like other years, I’m almost done, I’ll just wait till the food’s gone,” said Forbes, who lives off Oak Knoll Road. “And sure enough, I heard something the other night – the feeders were being attacked.”
The state release noted that bird feeders seemed to be the biggest draw for bears, but an official also said more garbage cans than usual were being torn apart, as well as chicken coops and backyard honeybee hives.
“Things have just picked up in the past couple of weeks. We’re getting lots of bear-human conflict reports,” said Forrest Hammond, bear project leader at Fish and Wildlife. “I’ve talked with our field staff, especially the game wardens, and they’re getting a lot of calls,” he said, and several reports a day are coming in from the online bear-encounter reporting system, which can be found at https://anrweb.vt.gov/FWD/FW/WildlifeBearReport.aspx.
Forbes realized it was a bear when she shined a flashlight outside, and saw it ripping out the cable that’s attached to her house, where the birdfeeder hangs.
“I yelled for everybody to come and see it,” she said. Her husband and teenage daughter woke up to her yelling, and joined her to watch. “My husband had never seen a bear so he was psyched. And my daughter Lily, 14, woke up and she saw him…my husband was so excited he could check ‘seeing a bear’ off his bucket list,” she said.
“We just kind of watched him move slowly into the woods. He just easily stepped over our fence… It was big!” she said.
Two neighbors in the area had the same problem, she said, of a bear getting into their feeders or, in one case, honeybee hives.
Forrest Hammond, a bear specialist at Vermont Fish and Wildlife, said there’s a good reason there were multiple strikes in the her area, and added that Forbes’s natural reaction was part of the reason bears will hit many homes in one area.
There’s even a special term they use for it, familiar to anyone raising a rescue pet or potty-training a toddler: positive reinforcement. “If they receive any food and at the same time they know people are there and the people do not resist them coming in, it’s liable to lead to repeat visits,” he said. “Usually a family is thrilled to see such a beautiful wild animal that they probably haven’t seen any of. And the tendency is to stand back and watch or take pictures.”
“The first few times they approach a habitation of people, they’re pretty wary and easily scared off by almost any noise, certainly someone hollering at them or clapping at them, the bear runs off,” said Hammond. “If they come to enough houses and backyards, where people encounter them but don’t try to scare them, they become somewhat empowered. It becomes a progressive behavioral change where they start looking for other food that seems attractive.”
Lisa Dwyer, who lives in a neighborhood of about 35 homes atop a hill on Ledgewood Drive, said in the six years she’s lived there, she’d never heard of bear encounters, yet she had an attack, as well.“We have had feeders here the whole time and we thought we were far enough away from woods that it wouldn’t be a problem. Clearly that wasn’t the case.”
A bear would need to wander at least a quarter-mile in distance from woods, and uphill, to find her bird feeders, yet she had an overnight attack. “I feel really bad, because this kind of puts other people in danger. I certainly don’t want to be attracting bears to the neighborhood,” she said. “I’m also kind of surprised, it seems like this time of year they wouldn’t need to go foraging. I’m not sure what’s going on.”
For more information on the unusual bear behaviors unique to the past winter, what some neighbors are doing and how areas can enact a bear strategy, visit Web Extras for the full interview with Forrest Hammond.