Bears making more contact with humans

ADDISON COUNTY — If you hear something go bump in the night, it might be your neighborhood bear rummaging for a snack.
Since early spring there have been a series of sightings of a black bear traveling throughout Weybridge and Cornwall, and its activities in residents’ backyards seems to be on the rise. The bear appears to be attracted to any kind of food left outside and has even entered screened-in porches in search of a late-night meal. While it’s unclear if there is only one bear in the area or if there are several roaming residential areas, residents’ sightings suggest a lone bear.
Ingrid and Woody Jackson of Cornwall have had their screened-in porch broken into twice since this past spring. The bear was initially attracted to a metal bird feeder they kept in their backyard. They moved the feeder into their screened porch, assuming that would steer the bear away from their yard. No such luck.
“I thought (the bird feeder) was practically in my house,” Ingrid Jackson explained, so she was surprised when she heard something moving downstairs one night. She went to the porch to investigate, and found herself face to face with a bear.
“I turned on the light, and the bear didn’t move. I thought, ‘Oh, holy smokes!’” she said.
The bear eventually left of its own accord.
Since that incident, the Jacksons have been extra vigilant about removing all traces of birdseed from their yard, but that hasn’t stopped a bear from again breaking into their front porch.
In fact, it seems that bears have an impressive memory for locations where they once got a snack. Peggy Lyons of Weybridge first had a bear in her backyard a few years ago, and she suspects the same bear has been returning since.
“I’ve seen wet footprints on my porch,” Lyons said. “It’s a little too close for comfort.”          
Lyons said the bear first came to her backyard a few years ago, attracted by a covered barrel full of birdseed. After Lyons emptied the barrel, the bear returned this past spring and headed straight for where it had first snacked. When it couldn’t find any birdseed, it headed for the porch.
“I had never even seen a bear around here,” Lyons said, noting that online chat rooms such as Front Porch Forum might be helpful to locals hoping to get a pulse on the amount of bear sightings in their area. The bear only comes at night and is not aggressive, though it does get alarmingly close to the house.
“I’m assuming it’s the same bear,” she said.
Black bears are the smallest of three bear species found in North America. According to the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, the females are an average of 120-180 pounds, with males weighing in at 300-400 pounds. They have excellent hearing and smell, with poorer eyesight — hence the importance of removing any traces of food from residents’ land. Black bears are often shy, but will quickly overcome their fear of humans once they have frequent access to food from people’s barns, land and porches.
Lt. George Scribner, a game warden with Fish and Wildlife in Middlebury, recommends that all residents of Addison County, not only those encountering bears, be vigilant about removing all traces of food from their property.
“(The bears) are in the area because either people are feeding birds, leaving garbage, or feeding their pets outside,” Scribner said. “They’re down here because it’s much easier to knock over a can feeder than it is to turn over logs. People think they can bring feeders in, but the remnants of feeders are also a problem — you have to completely stop feeding altogether. As soon as food goes, bears will go.”
Frank Burkle, who recently saw a bear outside his Weybridge home, suggested another precaution Vermonters should take — lock the doors connecting their porches to the interior of their homes.
“Imagine if the bear got into the porch, and then you walk in and he’s in your living room,” he said. “This is not a good thing, he needs to be relocated.”
The issue with relocating bears, Scribner noted, is that they often travel a span of around 30 miles in any direction, and younger bears are often pushed out of the denser forests by older bears that have already claimed the territory. These younger bears are often more likely to end up in villages, though it is still quite rare to spot a bear during the day.
If people see a bear, Scribner advised, it’s best to leave it alone.
“Give it some space. Bring your pets inside, and don’t confront it,” he said.
People should call Fish and Wildlife officials when bears break into cars or buildings, Scribner said. Once a bear kills livestock or enters a person’s home, the bear will have to be relocated or worse; because relocating is often extremely difficult, bears that cannot be moved will often be put to death.
“Bears aren’t going to break into a porch for no reason,” Scribner said. “They smell something that makes it want to break in.”
The Weybridge/Cornwall area is not the only place black bears have been seen in Addison County this season. Homeowners near typical bear habitat in the Green Mountains, such as in Leicester, are reporting bear sightings. And Bristol police have noted a couple reports of bear in Bristol village — including in garbage behind a Main Street building — this month. But reports from further away from the mountains are also coming in.
“The last eight-10 years, more bears have moved west of Route 7, and people haven’t learned to adapt to living with bears, either,” Scribner said. “People have to adapt as well, and will adapt over time.”
While it’s unclear if all the sightings in Cornwall and Weybridge have been of the same bear, Burkle has identified some of the bear’s characteristics that might help future spotters determine if it is, indeed, the same birdseed thief.
Burkle was in his home during the day in mid-July when he saw a “huge” black bear only four feet from him in his back yard. Burkle estimated that it was more than six feet tall, and about 300 pounds.
“If it stood up it’d be bigger than I was,” he said, noting that bears’ summer coats often make them appear bulkier than they really are.
The bear also appeared to have a broken leg.
“It was real stiff when he walked,” Burkle said. “He was pretty mobile, but his left hind leg was stiff.”
The bear was mainly interested in a birdseed bin in his backyard, and though it seemed harmless in its pursuit of bird food, Burkle was taken aback by how at-home it seemed in a human environment.
“It was pretty brave and pretty scary,” he said. “He was big. His paws must have been the size of paper plates, walking through the yard like he owned it.” 

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