EXTRA: Forrest Hammond, Vt. expert, on increasing bear encounters

This piece offers additional information for what to do about the increasing bear encounters in Williston and statewide. For the original story, click here.

Observer courtesy photo by Bren/Flickr.
Observer courtesy photo by Bren/Flickr.

How weather patterns can affect bears

“Certainly the weather patterns that we’ve had for the past six months or so may have had something to do with this,” said Forrest Hammond, a bear specialist at Vermont Fish and Wildlife, speaking as to why bear encounters are rising in the state.

“It was actually a pretty miserable weather winter-wise for the bears. The best winter a bear could have is one where early snowfall comes, it stays heavy and then at the spring time, at the normal time, the snow melts off, they come out of hibernation. And bears, in that case, are probably pretty comfortable hibernating. That’s what they evolved in the North Country to face,” he said.

Warm winter = bad sleep

“The past winter being an warm winter, a lot of the den sites were fairly open,” he said. “Most dens are not really well protected. They don’t normally go into caves. Usually it’s under a fallen log or brush pile.

“With the kind of winter we had, with frequently hard driving rains, a lot of the bears were pretty miserable, I imagine they used a lot of energy trying to stay warm, being wet. Because of that they were probably uncomfortable, used up a lot of energy and fat reserves, and in the spring some of them were able to leave their dens early, especially the males, and feeding on what food was available from last fall (mostly acorns and beech nuts.)”

“So fairly early on most of those foods were consumed, and then they were not able to switch very fast on to green foods, because we had a delayed spring, we had very cool weather. So a lot of the leaves and sedges and grasses were late in coming out. A delayed spell.”

Starving in their natural habitat

“So the bears were out with almost nothing to eat. And it was almost like a walking starvation period of the bears. And bears have evolved to go long periods of time without eating. So they can get through that by feeding on foraged foods- the buds and leaves coming out. But again they’re easily enticed by the odors coming from peoples’ back yards and things like that.”

Keeping track & when to call

Fish and Wildlife has a website for reporting bear incidents, Hammond said. “We like to keep track of specific bears in different neighborhoods, and what their behavior is. A bear just coming in for bird feeder and then the people cleaning up after that and taking the bird feeder in – there’s no more food for the bear and it should leave,” he noted. Any level of incident can be reported online at Vermont’s bear reporting system. 

“That’s kind of the lowest level of importance as far as a report to us on bears. That’s fairly common. When the bear starts getting garbage every night and perhaps breaking into buildings — especially if they’re trying to break into a building when people are there, that really ratchets it up, and that’s a red flag to our folks [the game wardens], and it’s a sign that people should call their local game warden. If they call the police, they’ll be put in touch with a local game warden.

Making a plan

“If you’ve had a visit or know they’ve been in the neighborhood we encourage people to put some kind of plan together with what they have on hand on what you can do to make it uncomfortable for the bears,” said Hammond.

Easy steps you can take may just involve informing neighbors on the right kind of bear behavior. He suggestions any level of noise-making will help.

“You can come out on the deck, you can holler at the bear, you can throw things at it, you can use a bottle rocket; a paintball gun. Some noises and a demonstration you don’t want the bear there,” said Hammond

“They’re pretty smart and they can get that message. We really encourage people not to just step back and silently take pictures. If they know the person is there and that person’s allowing them to get the dog food or the garbage, it kind of empowers them. They can then go to the next house and be a little more aggressive,” he said.

Other advice from Fish and Wildlife:

  • Keep chickens and honeybees secure within an electric fence or other bear-proof enclosure.
  • Never feed bears, deliberately or accidentally.
  • Feed pets indoors.
  • Do not feed birds April 1 through November 30. Bringing feeders in at night doesn’t work, because of seed spilled on the ground.
  • Store trash in a secure place. Trash cans alone are not bear-proof.

Other tips for spring

“The bear issue really seems to be one of the biggest this year for us,” said Hammond, but that’s not the only message they wish to impart to the public.

“The other thing we’re trying to get out to the public. Soon people will be seeing newborn fawns and other newborn wildlife. If you see it, leave it. The chances are the adults are nearby. If people try to help the animal – it create a lot of problems.