Those bears in your backyards aren’t going anywhere – and their population is growing

  • Young black bear. photo illustration/istock photo

  • A bear scourges for seed remnants in a bird feeder. Bill Byrne for Massachusetts Wildlife

  • A black bear wanders in the wilderness. Between the 1970s and now, the Massachusetts bear population has increased more than tenfold, experts say. Bill Byrne for Massachusetts Wildlife

@mjmajchrowicz
Published: 7/15/2016 4:10:19 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The crashing sound of glass bottles clanking and falling roused Tom Porter from a quiet night of magazine-reading in his Belchertown home on a recent Sunday. Porter glanced up from his beekeeping magazine and jolted for the back door toward his beehive colonies.

Barefoot and in shorts, Porter, 68, ran toward the five beehives enclosed in a makeshift chain-link fortress he had built just a week earlier. In the quiet of the night, he could hear the buzz-buzz-buzzing of the 500,000 bees. He shone his flashlight into the darkness, and then he saw it — the bear was back.

“Get out of there! What are you doing?” Porter shouted at the black bear, standing 30 yards away.

The bear just stared.

“Get out of there!” he continued to shout. “Go! Go!”

Porter is not alone. Nor, apparently, is the bear.

The number of bears in Massachusetts has grown more than tenfold in recent decades, climbing from about 400 in the 1970s to a current population of 5,000, said Ralph Taylor, a biologist who manages the Connecticut Valley Wildlife District. And that number is only going to continue to grow until the environment is no longer able to sustain the population.

Some have wondered whether the frequency of bears roaming into residential areas is on the rise, a question raised in part by the large number of bear-in-backyard photos appearing in this newspaper and on social media. They’re not wrong, experts say.

“I think we certainly are seeing more of those,” Taylor said. “The only way we’re able to track is by people calling in to report.”

The reported incidents vary in both number and frequency from town to town.

“Now in Northampton, we rarely get calls,” Taylor said. “The only reason I can think of is people are so used to seeing them, it’s not alarming anymore.”

Taylor’s sentiment holds up.

The number of bear reports to Northampton police dropped from 64 to 42 between 2014 and 2015, according to police records examined by the Gazette.

So far in 2016, there have been 21.

Those numbers were considerably higher in 2011 and 2012 at 71 and 88 reports, respectively. The number of reported incidents, however, plummeted to 19 in 2013. Neither Taylor nor the police could offer an explanation for that sharp decline.

To discourage bears from roaming your yard and potentially posing a threat, local law enforcement officials say, the steps are simple, but effective: cover your trash, take down your bird feeders and keep your distance.

Northampton adopted a city ordinance in 2012 that prohibits feeding wildlife. The ordinance, which excludes bird feeders, was introduced as a means to curb local bear encounters.  

“They’re here and they’re not going away any time soon,” said Carol Hepburn, Amherst animal welfare officer. “The best way to deal with it is to try and coexist with them — and be careful, they’re wild.”

In Amherst, Hepburn said, the town averages about five calls a month beginning around March, when the bears start to emerge from hibernation.

That average, Hepburn estimates, is up about 20 percent in 2016 from last year. She couldn’t put her finger on any one reason, but offered an educated guess that the mild winter drove the bears into the community in larger numbers because they did not hibernate as long.

Although bear-on-human attacks are rare, Taylor said, they do happen. Last year a 17-year-old Amherst girl was scratched by a bear while walking her dog, police said. She had jumped atop a car to further avoid the bear.

Before that, in 2014, a Northampton woman told police she was in her backyard gardening when she felt a “pinch” on her buttocks. She screamed, according to the police report, and saw the bear behind her. The woman threw a rock at the bear and retreated into her home. Authorities found no sign of actual physical contact, according to the report.

Since 1900, Taylor said, there have been about 65 people killed by bears in North America. He said none of the fatalities were in Massachusetts. 

Like Hepburn, Northampton Police Capt. John Cartledge stressed for residents not to hover near bear sightings. The first call should always be to local police, who then determine whether or not to involve additional agencies, such as the Massachusetts Environmental Police.

“Our basic role is to maintain safety for the public,” Cartledge said. “Quite frequently, we get calls about bears near neighborhoods and schools, so our primary concern would be for the safety of children and families. So the officers would respond and just stay in the area to monitor the bear, make sure it leaves and that everyone’s safe.”  

But these encounters raise the question: what draws these burly, roaming creatures to your yards and bird feeders in the first place?

“You can imagine what a town like Amherst or Northampton, who have these (bird) feeders every other house, smells like to a bear,” Taylor said. “It’s like a dinner bell.”

The bird seed in the feeders tends to be highly nutritious and is packed with a high level of protein and fat content, Taylor explained. Especially the black-oil-coated sunflower seeds — “They can smell these from miles away,” Taylor said. “Bears have the most olfactory sense in the animal kingdom.”

Back on Tom Porter’s makeshift bee farm, all he wanted to do was continue to produce his honey.

“It’s busy work, and it’s sticky work,” he said.

When he asked for advice, state officials implored Porter to take down the beehives, but that wasn’t an option he was willing to consider.

His MacGyveresque, somewhat-bear-proof fence around his beehives will suffice for now.

Meanwhile, as the game of cat and mouse wages on, Porter was becoming less and less certain: who was the cat, and who was the mouse?

“We both have our own agendas,” he said.

Michael Majchrowicz can be reached at mmajchrowicz@gazettenet.com or 413-585-5234.




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