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New Developments Flushing Out Bears

July 2, 1988

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) _ A sudden spate of black bear sightings at parks, fairgrounds, highways, back yards and - naturally - honey bee hives has residents of the western part of the state wondering if there is a bear boom.

The bear population has indeed gone up, say wildlife officials. But the problem comes more from a people boom in the state’s western hills, so the two populations, human and ursine, see each other more often.

″It is a case of people going into a bear’s back yard,″ said Ellie Horwitz, spokeswoman for the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. ″They are farming, putting up bee hives, and are not taking into consideration that the bears are attracted to these things. The bears are opportunists and will take advantage of whatever is easiest and convenient.″

Authorities haven’t released any figures on the number of bears sighted in residential areas, but Horwitz said, ″None of the bears we have been made aware of are of any danger to the community.″

No injuries to either the bears or startled humans have been reported. While people scurry for cameras and shelter, the usually docile black bears head back to the woods.

″Black bears are relatively small and unaggressive,″ said Horwitz. ″Some people will describe them as looking like fat dogs. But they really don’t look like dogs at all. A well-fed bear will have a round body and a small head with an elongated face.″

″A black bear that gets up to 400 pounds in Massachusetts is considered to be a very large bear, although in other areas they may get up to 600 pounds,″ she said. By contrast, grizzly bears in the West can reach 1,500 pounds.

Black bears can be aggressive in some circumstances. At Vail, Colo., one chased a 14-year-old boy last weekend after the youth photographed the animal. Colorado wildlife officials have set bear traps around the posh resort because as many as eight bears have been feasting on trash dumps.

In Massachusetts, an estimated 500 bears roam the 400-square-mile area between the Berkshire Mountains and Connecticut River north of the Massachusetts Turnpike - the general area where the sightings have been reported. In the mid-1970s, it was thought only 100 bears lived in the state.

Ronald Wilkinson, chief of police at Look Memorial Park, says he can no longer hike on half the trails he frequented as a boy because so many vacation and summer homes have been built.

″Many of the areas are taken up with development. You can still walk through them, but you could be considered a trespasser,″ he said. ″There are some very exclusive and secluded developments going up.″

Wayne McCallum, assistant director of the state wildlife agency, said the number of sightings indicates two problems: a loss of natural habitat for the bears due to increased residential development and a possible change in people’s attitudes toward the animals.

″When people build a house in the middle of the woods, sometimes up to a quarter-mile in from the road, the bears are not going to move out,″ he said.

″Most people like bears. They are fascinated by them,″ McCallum said. ″But when so many people move from urban areas to rural areas and bring their urban attitudes, treating the wild animals as pets, managing the wildlife population becomes very difficult.″

At the same time, he said, farmers who claim to have lost crops or livestock to bears tend to view the animals as pests. Farmers in Franklin County have asked for an extension on the one-week bear hunting season in September. In 1987, 21 of the 34 bears shot in Massachusetts were taken in or around corn fields, McCallum said.

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