Black bears are creatures of habit, for sure, but also display a depth of intelligence. Just ask Forrest Hammond, the lead black bear biologist for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.
This talk of higher mammals and intelligence calls to mind a conversation I had years ago with a deer biologist from Fish & Wildlife, a man I held in high esteem, who argued strenuously that deer did not possess any form of intelligence. I argued that, based on observations I had made over the years, of behavior on the part of deer, that I believed that they did, indeed, possess a form of intelligence.
His argument was that what I had observed was merely something like “instinct” and not learned behavior.
But Hammond believes otherwise, particularly when it comes to black bears. Bears, Hammond said in an interview, are “absolutely” intelligent creatures. “We know that they’ve got a good memory.”
Based on evidence drawn from our national parks, Hammond said bears learn on what day the garbage gets picked up. “They also learn the color of the park ranger’s truck. The public might be feeding bears, but when a ranger’s truck arrives, they take off running,” he said.
How smart is the black bear?
“Bears even learn how to get into a car. If there is food in your car and it’s not locked, bears have learned how to manipulate a car door and open it with the door handle,” he said. Here in Vermont, there have been three or four incidents of bears getting into cars. “In one case, the bear got inside, the door somehow locked and the bear totally destroyed the inside of that car,” Hammond said.
Fish & Wildlife tries to maintain a delicate balance between the welfare of its bear population and the safety of the public. When bears and humans come into close contact, it often arouses a false sense of danger for the public, particularly for people who are not versed in bear behavior.
We had a black bear, a very large male, caught on a trail camera in the late spring not far from my home, and it prompted one neighbor to remark about how “terrified” she was of black bears. I told her she had more reason to worry about her neighbor’s dog than any bear.
Hammond agreed with that. “Look at how many people are injured, every year, by domestic dogs,” he said.
One of Hammond’s biggest concerns was with bears that become “habituated to people,” he said.
“We have lots of bears starting to come into people’s back yards, but we don’t think they pose a danger to people,” he said. “But if the bear is determined enough to get human food — garbage, bird seed, dog food — then over time they lose their fear of humans more and more and, at some point, they actually start entering houses. At that point, they do pose a more potential threat to people.”
There has been only one human killed by a black bear in Vermont, and that occurred to a hunter in 1943, according to Hammond.
Black bears possess both an extraordinary sense of smell and hearing, according to Hammond. Furthermore, “It’s been estimated that their eyesight is probably comparable to people and they actually see in color,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Vermont bear hunting season opens today, Sept. 1.
Twenty-five years ago, Vermont had fewer than 3,000 bears. Today, according to Hammond, the population is estimated at just below 6,000. Last year, hunters killed 622 bears, an impressive number for a small New England state. The best years to date were in 2003 and 2004 when more than 700 bears were tagged by hunters.
Back in 1990, Fish & Wildlife cut back on the number of days for bear season, and that helped to allow for the population to expand, Hammond said. “Once we allowed the population to grow … the population expanded out of the mountains. The core area of black bears had always been the remote, mountain areas of the state and in the Northeast Kingdom,” he said.
Not anymore. “Now bears have expanded their range. We have bears living in most towns of the state with the exception of the islands of Lake Champlain,” he said.
Hammond predicted another good bear season.
“If conditions are right and if the bears are out late and desperate enough for food and travel a lot, a lot of bears could be taken.”
Bears will focus on apples and beechnuts when both foods are plentiful, Hammond said, but “a poor beechnut year in most areas” and a noticeable drop in wild apples will mean that, at least early in the season, bears will be feeding in standing corn in September and October.
“They’ll probably be in the corn more. We are already getting damage complaints from farmers,” he said.
Hammond said that bear hunters might want to focus on those apple trees that are bearing fruit. In years where the apple supply is plentiful, it is harder for a hunter to predict where a bear might feed, he said.
Successful bear hunters are being reminded that Fish & wildlife regulations require them to remove a tooth from their bear. “It’s a simple procedure, a tiny tooth behind the canine and very easy to work out with a pen knife,” Hammond said.
A hunter must field dress the bear before taking it to a reporting station. It is also legal to skin the bear and cut it up in order to carry it out of the woods.
Hammond also asked bear hunters to be particularly careful in reporting the sex of the bears they have taken.
“Sometimes people report the sex of the bear wrong,” he said. “I don’t know how that could happen. They need to make sure they accurately record the sex of the bear when they bring in a bear to a checking station.”
Contact Dennis Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org