Living with Hungry Bears
With hungry black bears recently emerging from their dens and, with food relatively limited at this time of year, Massachusetts Wildlife officials want to remind residents they live in bear country.
Dave Wattles, a black bear biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said the bears have been awake for about a month and they are hungry.
“In the spring, there is not availability of a lot of natural foods,” said Wattles. “Quite often, they do go to backyards to feed at bird feeders and take advantage of other available foods.”
Wattles said bears are most commonly spotted in the months of May, June, and July. Sightings tend to peak in June because of mating season and young, naive bears are leaving their mothers for the first time, he said.
Most commonly found in forested areas and wetlands, bears typically feed on the emerging plants in the early months of spring. As summer progresses, said Wattles, they transition to feeding on ants and beehives before eating acorns, hickory nuts, and beech nuts in the fall.
Bears, however, are very smart and will return to places where food is readily available, he said.
“They are mostly driven by food availability,” he said. “The reason they end up near homes is because of human associated food. We don’t want them in those residential areas, we want them in their natural habitat feeding on natural foods.”
According to Wattles, the biggest food attraction for bears is bird feeders. They will also take advantage of trash stored outside and, increasingly, backyard livestock.
“Backyard chicken farming is becoming super popular and bears are encountering coops more often,” said Wattles. “They are now learning that chickens, eggs, and chicken feed are a good source of food.”
Wattles said to combat the problem residents should start using electric fencing to protect their livestock and to prevent bears from being trained to expect food near homes.
Bears tend to develop bad behaviors the more time they spend around neighborhoods, he said. Often times, those bad behaviors can lead to the animal being killed.
He also said bears are not inherently aggressive toward people and do not see them as prey. During chance encounters where a bear is surprised by a person in close proximity, they might react defensively and that person can get seriously injured, he added.
“That’s part of the reason why we don’t want bears in these residential areas,” he said. “Fortunately, we have not had someone seriously injured so far this year.”
If a resident does encounter a bear, Wattles urges them to give it space and to respect that potential for injury. He said that residents should not get closer for a picture because, if people get closer, they could end up chasing the bear further into developed areas.
When a bear does get into a bird feeder, Wattles said that residents should clean up the food so that the bear is not encouraged to return.
“If we don’t provide the food, there will be bears in the woods rather than bears in the neighborhoods,” he said. “We need to be responsible around our homes and communities and take care of those food sources because it is people causing these issues.”