Bear family causes a big stir in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Kristin Mitchell was offering up copious amounts of birdseed at her Birchard Park home in Middlebury this spring in hopes of attracting a flock of fine feathered friends.
But what she got earlier this month was a family of large, furry bears, a group she and Vermont Fish & Wildlife officials would rather see dining deep in the woods.
Fish & Wildlife officials are warning Middlebury residents to be wary of — and absolutely not feed — a female black bear and her three cubs that were most recently spotted in the Buttolph Acres neighborhood on Sunday, June 10.
The ubiquitous bear and her brood drew some “ooohs” and “awwws” after being spotted in a tree off Woodland Park in that residential neighborhood at around 4 p.m. A Middlebury police officer stood vigil while urging passersby to move along and therefore not get in harm’s way. Black bear are known as the most timid variety of North American bear, but a sow will lash out at a human if cornered or if she feels her cubs are in danger, noted Vermont Fish and Wildlife Game Warden Dale Whitlock of Middlebury.
He said the oft-seen Middlebury bear is young and perhaps a first-time mom. She and her cubs have been spotted scrounging for food at various locations between Chipman Hill on the north end of the village and Birchard Park, which is off Rogers Road behind the Rite Aid and Courtyard by Marriot hotel.
“She’s not had a bad interaction with a human yet,” Whitlock said of the bear, which he has seen on a few occasions. “It’s easy living for her right now.”
Whitlock and other VFW officials want to make Middlebury’s residential areas less inviting for the bear and others bold enough to mix with humans. So residents are being urged to:
•  Not feed the bear and her brood; it’s actually against state law to do so. Feeding her will keep her around people rather than deep in the forest, where she and her cubs should be right now.
“This bear is here to stay for awhile until she realizes it’s not as easy to get food,” Whitlock said.
•  Keep your garbage secured — preferably in a closed garage can — until pick-up day. Bears have a powerful sense of smell and consider your dumpster or garbage can a buffet.
•  Make sure your bird feeder isn’t being ransacked by bears. If bears are eating at your feeder, take it down. It is a criminal offense to knowingly keep on feeding bears, including if that source is a bird feeder, according to Whitlock.
THIS BEAR CUB climbed a tree of Woodland Park in Middlebury on Sunday. 
Photos by Diane Brown
Bird seed, Whitlock explained, is a prime source of protein for bears, and they prefer it over greenery.
•  Keep barbecue grills clean and stored inside. Black bears like meat.
•  Feed your pets indoors. They’d just as soon scarf down some Alpo, and they’ll go through your dog to get it.
•  Protect your chickens and beehives with electric fencing.
•  Slowly back away from the bear if confronted. Folks who have seen the bear multiple times on their property should invest in an air horn or some bear repellant, according to Whitlock.
The Buttolph Acres incidents are not the only recent bear sightings in Middlebury. A good-sized adult bear was sniffing around Jack Goodman’s house on Old Pasture Lane, off Painter Road, on Memorial Day when it caught a whiff of the hamburger Goodman was eating on his back porch. Goodman scampered inside to get his camera, and when he returned he found the bear nearby, but no burger.
Forrest Hammond, leader of Fish & Wildlife’s Black Bear Project, said bear sightings have been on the rise throughout the state this year as the hungry animals look for easy food sources following a pretty rough winter.
Last year, the department received a combined total of 471 reports of bear sightings, including bear fatalities outside of hunting season, damage caused by bears, and related nuisance activity. That number was down from 743 reports in 2016, a year when bear food was in shorter supply.
As of Wednesday, Hammond had already recorded 107 complaints about bears and he anticipates a combined total of more than 1,000 reports of bear fatalities, damage and nuisance activity by the end of 2018.
Anyone who sees a bear in areas populated by humans is instructed not to approach the animals and to report it to Fish and Wildlife online here.
Vermont’s current black bear population is estimated at more than 7,000, according to Hammond. It is the third consecutive year the state has exceeded its target population of 6,000 black bears, he said. That target is based on a number officials believe Vermonters can “tolerate or want,” according to Hammond. The latest surge in bear population could prompt Fish & Wildlife officials to recommend an expanded hunting season for the animal, Hammond noted. The current season begins on Sept. 1 and lasts into mid-November.
Whitlock and other Fish & Wildlife officials have been distributing brochures warning people of the “dos” and “don’ts” when it comes to black bears.
“Every spring, as the bear population continues to grow, there are more bear-human interactions,” Whitney lamented.
Fish & Wildlife officials are hoping for the most inconsequential end possible to Middlebury’s bear problem: That residents remove any food temptations and thus send the sow and her cubs foraging in remote areas of the surrounding forest.
If that doesn’t happen, Whitlock must consider some last-resort options: Trapping the bear — hopefully with her young — in a cage, or killing her and fostering out the cubs until they’re mature enough to be released into proper habitat.
Whitlock has temporarily stowed two large, live traps at the Middlebury police headquarters in case they’re needed. Trapping the bear would be very stressful on the animal, Whitlock noted.
He doesn’t even want to think about the other option.
“I will do everything I can not to have to harm this bear,” he said.
GAME WARDENS AND residents have seen the bears around Middlebury this spring and fear that they are becoming too accustomed to raiding bird feeders and garbage cans near human residences. Photo by Diane Brown
Meanwhile, Mitchell will keep some vivid memories and a few photos of her brush with the Middlebury black bear family.
She said she first encountered the ursine clan on June 1. She heard a commotion in her back yard that evening. She flicked on the outside light and saw her bird feeder had been toppled and broken. Then her dog Mojo started barking. She was startled to see big mama bear feeding from a tube bird feeder she had knocked down near the deck of her home.
“I banged on the window, she looked at me, and then started trundling off,” Mitchell recalled.
She was in for an even bigger surprise the following evening. Mitchell and Mojo were returning from a walk, when Mojo sensed something was amiss. He started barking. Mitchell saw mama bear running across her lawn after having scarfed up the sunflower seeds she had forgot to sweep up from her deck the night before.
And that wasn’t the end of it.
Mitchell noticed the small doorway leading into the breezeway between her home and garage was open. She approached cautiously, looked inside, and spied two ambitious cubs that had ventured into the garage area in an attempt to get sunflower seeds stored in a garbage can.
She thought about getting her camera, then heard a disconcerting sound charging through the darkness and tingles went up her spine.
A heavy breathing sound was coming from a nearby cherry tree.
Mitchell withdrew.
“I didn’t want to get between the mother and her cubs,” she said.
Sound advice.
For more information on black bear, go to vtfishandwildlife.com.
People with safety-related concerns pertaining to bears and other wildlife should contact Whitlock at (802) 777-6269.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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