Bill Lovett wasn’t completely sure at first what wrecked his fence overnight on May 3, but he had a fairly good idea, given the paw prints, black hair and pile of droppings left on the lawn.
Lovett has lived on Pearl Street in Rutland City for several decades. He’s deputy chief of the city fire department, and doesn’t recall ever seeing black bears in his neighborhood. Moose, deer and other critters, yes, but bears not so much.
He said he sent photos of the fence-wrecker’s leavings to Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and had it confirmed that, yes, it was a black bear that had most likely damaged his property. Lovett said the scat was filled with grasses and reeds, but mostly it contained birdseed.
Lovett said he keeps his trash secured and takes his bird feeders in before the ground even thaws to prevent this very problem. His neighbors have also had visits from bears. Some have reported seeing a mother with two cubs, he said.
This is unusual in the city, Lovett said. His parents, who lived on Pearl Street not far from where he is now, likewise never used to see bears in the neighborhood since moving there in the 1930s.
Every year, the Fish and Wildlife Department posts reminders for people to take in their bird feeders, cover their trash and take other steps to avoid attracting bears that have recently awoken, hungry, from their winter hibernation.
Game Warden Abigail Serra, who covers the Rutland area, said Wednesday she recently asked the Rutland City Police Department to use its Facebook page to spread the Fish and Wildlife Department’s warning about feeding bears. The original post from Fish and Wildlife features a photo of a black bear standing on the railing of a deck, lapping at a hummingbird feeder. “The Very Rare and Elusive Hummingbear” reads part of the caption, along with the message, “Don’t create more hummingbears — take down your birdfeeders!”
Serra said she was getting an unusually high number of bear complaints from city residents. While she’s only been assigned to the area for a year, records kept by past wardens show one bear complaint from the city each year between 2015 and 2018. This year, she said, there have already been three. Most are on the northeast end of town near Mendon and Killington, towns where bears are common. Rutland Town has also seen an uptick in bear complaints.
Statewide, she said, between March and the first half of May, wardens received 30 bear calls in 2017, 34 in 2018 and 40 this year.
Vermont’s black bear population is doing well, but there isn’t much food for them in the woods this season, hence the increase in sightings, said Serra. Bears love birdseed because it’s high in calories, as are many other easy meals humans leave unattended.
Serra said direct contact with bears and people is rare. She said one woman reported being charged by a black bear, but upon further investigation it seems the bear’s chosen escape route took it, briefly, in the woman’s direction. Black bears generally aren’t aggressive, Serra said, but they can lose their fear of humans to the point where they’ll break into houses. If a bear learns to do that, she said, it has to be trapped and put down, as it will use the same trick again.
It’s illegal in Vermont to knowingly feed bears, she said. This includes leaving out bird feeders knowing bears will turn up. She said if a person is found to be knowingly, repeatedly attracting bears, they can be issued a warning and possibly a fine. She’s only issued a small amount of warnings, and so far no fines.
The state has a number of recommendations for people to not attract bears. Chief among them is removing food sources such as bird feeders, pet food, barbecue grills, garbage and compost. Be sure to clean under the bird feeders for any dropped seeds.
Lovett said he thinks the bear in his yard was attracted by the smell of seeds long gone.
Garbage, according to the state, should be kept indoors where possible. Take it out in the morning instead of leaving it overnight, and remove trash as often as possible.
The Fish and Wildlife Department says keepers of bees, chickens and berries should consider electric fencing, as should people with large trash bins. Motion activated lights can work, too, but sometimes bears get used to them and they don’t serve as much of a deterrent. Composters should keep their piles three parts “brown” material such as dried leaves and straw, to every one part “green” material and food scraps. Put fresh material on the bottom and avoid adding things that raise a smell.