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Downtown Northampton bear sightings surprise, amaze

  • A beer rests in a tree over the war memorial in Leeds, May 27. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • This still from video shot by Amy Lovell shows two bears in downtown Northampton recently. COURTESY AMY LOVELL



Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — In the nearby forests and hills, a bear sighting might not come as a particular shock. But recently, wildlife paid an unexpected visit to the downtown area.

Last week, residents reported sightings of bears roaming in the area of Hampton Avenue and Pulaski Park.

On Oct. 4, Amy Lovell, founder at Bloom Cooperative Workspace & Family Center, was surprised to see a mother bear and two cubs walking along the bike path in back of Hampton Court, where her office is located just a short walk from Main Street.

For Lovell, the sighting inspired “amazement and appreciation.”

The bears remained on the bike path for a while before police arrived to keep people from disturbing the animals, she said. Eventually, the furry family wandered down the other side of the hill and through the trees.

“I have a good respect for Mother Nature, and it was just amazing to see a big, beautiful, healthy wild animal just doing her thing with her babies,” Lovell said. “I was a little concerned the bear might get hurt if she got spooked or was behaving in a threatening way towards humans, so I was happy that the police just seemed to be focusing on keeping people away from the bears so they could be on their way.”

Aside from the sightings in the Hampton Avenue and Pulaski Park areas, Officer Michael Cronin said that he has not heard of any other recent reports of bears in the downtown area.

In the event of bear sightings, Cronin said that police advise people to leave the bears alone and allow them to roam. If the bears cause any problems, the department calls in environmental police.

While bear sightings in neighborhoods are not uncommon, bears in the downtown area are “slightly more unusual,” said Dave Wattles, a black bear and furbearer biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Northampton has a long history of bears existing in both natural areas and neighborhoods, Wattles said.

According to Wattles, bears are drawn into neighborhoods by human-associated foods, with bird feeders serving as the number one culprit.

“Each (bird feeder) is a calorie-rich meal for a bear,” Wattles said. “But each time it gets that meal it’s essentially being trained to come to neighborhoods to find food.”

If enough human-associated food is available, bears will sometimes even refrain from hibernating, as bears den in reaction to the lack of food sources that usually occurs in colder months.

Aside from bird feeders, human-associated food sources such as garbage, compost and greasy grills can also attract bears into residential areas, according to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

The only bear species native to the area is the black bear, which eats a primarily plant-based diet. However, they are opportunistic feeders that will eat meat as well.

Overall, black bear populations have been on the rise in Massachusetts, particularly in the eastern part of the state. Bear populations have remained steadier west of the Connecticut River, Wattles said, where a higher density of bears has already existed in the area for a long time.

Black bears do not typically behave aggressively toward humans; however, if a person encounters a bear, they should try to maintain a safe distance.

“You always want to give the bear space,” Wattles said. “While bears aren’t inherently aggressive towards people, they are a large, powerful animal, and you should respect that size and strength and just give them space.”

If encountering a bear on a trail, he added, people should back away, keep their eyes on the animal and speak to the bear in a calm, assertive voice.

Wattles said that bears usually will not attack pets, and that most pet-related incidents occur when dogs act aggressively toward bears. To prevent these encounters, Wattles advises keeping dogs on leashes and switching on outdoor lights to make sure that there are no bears in the yard before letting dogs outside.

An increasingly common issue is bear encounters with backyard chickens.

“As backyard chicken farming has become more popular, bears are encountering chicken coops more frequently,” Wattles said. “Unfortunately they’re learning chickens are easy meals, and once they do that they’re becoming regular raiders of chicken coops.”

Preventing these encounters is in the best interest of both chickens and bears; not only are chickens being killed by bears, but property owners sometimes shoot and kill bears when they see their chickens being attacked.

To avoid this situation, Wattles said that people who keep chickens in their backyards should install electric fencing around the coops.

“The overriding message is bear conflict comes from humans providing food around their homes and businesses, so making sure bears don’t have access to those is the number one thing we can ask the public to do to prevent bear encounters,” Wattles concluded.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.