Help the bears; don’t feed them
By Dennis Jensen
STAFF WRITER | March 17,2013
Dennis Jensen File Photo
A black bear is shown walking through the front yard of a Castleton home in late April last year.
Hunters and wildlife-lovers alike are living in a glorious, bountiful era here in Vermont. Wild turkey populations are at an all-time high. Moose can be observed from the borders of Massachusetts to Canada.
While deer populations continue to fluctuate, the Green Mountain State has a good, healthy herd. And black bears? According to the bear team leader for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, there are more bears roaming the countryside than ever in modern history.
We have a very healthy, robust population of bears in this state,” said Forrest Hammond, the bear team leader. “This is the most bears we’ve probably had prior to the settling of the states.”
When the white man came to populate New England, bears were considered a nuisance and a commodity.
“As soon as the settlers got there, they killed any bears they could see, for their pelts and for food, and they cleared off their habitat and put a bounty on the bears,” Hammond said. “For a period of about 150 years there were very few bears in this state.”
The black bear made its comeback as the forests returned to Vermont, Hammond said, and their numbers increased through the 1900s. Today, biologists estimate the Vermont bear population in Vermont at between 5,100 and 7,800 animals.
With the ever-growing population and a substantial increase in the number of bear-human conflicts, Fish & Wildlife has established an extended bear hunting season for this fall. The traditional Sept. 1 opening remains the same. But bear hunters will see the season extended four more days, during the Vermont firearms deer season, up until Nov. 24.
“The length of the season will be extended to the second weekend of the deer rifle season,” Hammond said. “This is intended to increase the bear harvest because we want to stabilize or slightly decrease the number of bears in the population.”
Hunters in Vermont tagged 617 bears during the 75-day bear season in 2012. That represents a 28-percent increase in the bear kill of 396 in 2011. That big jump in the bear kill in 2012 was attributed by Hammond to a fall food shortage of mast crops which made bears more vulnerable to hunters.
Bears will gravitate to corn fields when the mast crops fail and many bears last year were taken in or near corn fields. A bear in a cornfield can wreak havoc, knocking down rows of corn; a true headache for dairy farmers.
A bear tag accompanies every hunting license that is purchased. Hammond said that he wanted to stress the fact that, while the department mandates that bear hunters buy a new, $5 bear tag for the regular bear season, those hunters who hunt bears only during the firearms deer season will not be required to possess that $5 tag.
“So if you’re primarily a deer hunter who might a take bear in November, then nothing has changed,” Hammond said.
Fish & Wildlife issued a press release last week urging bird-lovers to take down their bird feeders. Hungry bears, emerging from their winter dens, know they have an easy feeding at these bird feeders. Last year, Hammond said, bears were constantly on the move in search of food due a shortage in what bears naturally feed on and that resulted in a whopping number of bear-human conflicts. One such encounter occurred in 2011 in Cabot, where a woman who was intentionally feeding bears was attacked by a sow with cubs. She suffered minor injuries. (With apologies to readers, I reported in error last week that the female bear in question had been “put down,” when, in fact, she was not.)
This spring, Hammond said, he expects the bears to come out of their dens ravenous.
“They’re going to come out of their dens this spring very hungry, hungrier than normal because last year there was a shortage of natural food for bears — nuts, berries and apples,” he said. “That’s why it is so important that people, within the next few weeks, take down their bird feeders,” Hammond said. “Usually, we say April 1, but if your lawn is bare of snow, that’s a good indicator that it is time to take down the bird feeder.”
Hammond added: “Our mantra is: Don’t feed the bears. It only adds to greater problems to you and your neighbors and for the bear.”
According to a draft of the 2012 Bear Report, prepared by Hammond, 230 bear damage complaints were made in 2012. The report went on to say: “The recent increase in Vermont’s black bear population and an expanding human population that is encroaching into black bear range increases the likelihood of bear-human encounters and, consequently, also increases the number of these that result in conflict. The Department recognizes that conflicts with bears need to be addressed with sensitivity toward both losses of personal property and human safety and towards the bear population.”
Bears are a fact of life for many Vermonters, particularly those of us living in rural areas. They deserve our respect and admiration. Watch them, on those rare occasions when you can. Hunt them, if they are on your hunting list. But don’t feed the bears.