Biologist: Humans are cause of bear problems

MIDDLEBURY — Bears aren’t the problem — you are.
This was the gist of the presentation given Wednesday evening by Forrest Hammond, a bear biologist for Vermont Fish & Wildlife, to a crowd of locals concerned by the spate of recent bear sightings around the area. About 70 people crowded the Middlebury Town Offices for the talk, which covered the biology and behavior of the Eastern black bears that call Addison County home — and what we can do to mitigate their encroachment into our backyards.
Discussion of the bear brigade has been hard to avoid over the past few months. In May we heard reports that a female bear with three cubs had been spotted around the village, from Buttolph Acres south to Birchard Park and north to Chipman Hill. And through the last month, Middlebury residents documented the creatures’ exploits on online forums: a dumpster plunder on July 12, claw marks on July 15, a road crossing on July 19 and a scat sighting on July 30.
When Hammond asked how many in the room had seen this family of bears in Middlebury, nearly everyone raised their hand.
According to Hammond, while Vermont’s black bear population has risen steadily over the past century, this alone can’t explain the uptick in human-bear contact seen in the area over the past few years. Instead, the main cause is our modern, American style of living, which involves disposing of large quantities of food.
“We happen to be a very affluent country, where we have a lot of garbage. It’s been estimated that a quarter to a third of our food we just throw out,” he said. “The bear likes to eat the same foods we do, and it does very well on our garbage.”
It’s only natural for bears to hang around our dwellings, Hammond said, given the nourishment we leave outside in our trash, bird feeders, beehives and in the form of livestock like chicken.
“The challenge for us isn’t necessarily the bears — over time, we’ve realized it’s people, and the way they interact with bears,” he said. “We can change bear behavior, but it’s hard to change people’s behavior.”
Hard as it may be, that behavior will need to change, both for our sakes and for the bears’. The more contact a bear has with humans, Hammond noted, the more likely it is to be killed — hit by a car, shot by a homeowner, or put down by the authorities after showing some aggression. “A FED BEAR IS A DEAD BEAR,” read the bumper stickers on a giveaway table near the entrance to last week’s meeting.
Part of the issue is that bears are simply too smart for their own good. Hammond said some bears have managed to learn which morning the garbage is collected each week, so that they can scavenge the goods the night before.
“They have a long memory, and if they’ve gotten food from your backyard, they’ll be back, even if it’s the following spring, after they’ve hibernated,” he said. “Chances are, when they’re hibernating, they’re just laying there, waiting for spring to arrive, thinking, ‘Where did I get food in the past year?’ Probably your backyard.”
Despite the challenges, Hammond stressed that it’s entirely possible for us to live alongside the creatures, if we can bring ourselves to alter just a few of our customs. Some useful measures include:
•  Feeding your dogs and cats indoors, not outside the house.
•  Composting correctly — include lots of dry ground material, which suppresses odor.
•  Waiting to put out your garbage until the morning of collection, and requesting a metal-lid dumpster from your waste facility.
•  Installing electric fences to protect chickens, beehives and corn.
•  Keeping barbecue grills clean, and stored indoors.
And, Hammond said, have a plan ready to terrify any bear that makes its way onto your property — creativity is encouraged.
“It’s as simple as going to your window or door and hollering at it, but there’s a lot of innovative ways to ratchet it up, make it a more negative experience,” he said. “If you’ve got some pyrotechnics, paintball guns, a fire extinguisher — there’s a lot of different ways to get that bear scared.”
Counterintuitive as it may sound, the meaner we are to the bears, the happier they’ll be in the long run.

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