As autumn starts closing in on the Berkshires, so do bears.
With bears increasing their protein and fat intake in preparation for hibernation, they're encroaching upon residential areas in search of food, according to state biologists and local animal control officers. As such, bears will be seen more frequently in neighborhoods bordering natural habitats in the fall, just like in the spring.
Eagle Photo Editor Ben Garver happened upon a black bear dining on refuse from a garbage bin behind Conte Community School last Friday afternoon and took photographs of the scene.
Pittsfield Animal Control Officer Joseph Chague said such a sighting isn't unusual since bears have probably been there before and will likely be there again. Chague fielded two calls reporting Pittsfield bear sightings, one on Thursday and another on Friday.
"They lived in Berkshire County long before we did," Chague said. "They still live here. They've been seen all over the city."
But if you do see one, don't panic and run for the hills. Bears live there, too.
According to Laura Conlee, the black bear project leader for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife based in West Boylston, there's never been a bear-mauling incident in Massachusetts.
The only bear species in Massachusetts, black bears are largely vegetarian, aside from insect larvae and certain types of human refuse.
They have a natural fear of people, Conlee said. They will get defensive around their young or if they feel threatened, but if given their space and as long as they're not approached, bears are mostly harmless, she said.
Chague and Conlee said the best way to keep bears from approaching residential areas is to keep trash out of reach and avoid putting out bird feeders. Black bears love bird seed since it is an excellent and concentrated source of fat and protein.
"The best thing is to just not put bird feeders out at all," Conlee said. "There are other ways to attract birds and not bears."
Conlee estimated there are about 4,000 bears in Massachusetts. Reports of bear sightings are quite common throughout the central and western part of the state.
When a bear finds food, it will normally return to the same spot later seeking more. If he finds more again, the bear will keep returning -- for years, if the source remains.
"Bears are very clever," Chague said. "They even know when it's trash day."
"If a bear finds a full bird feeder more than once, it will become his pattern," Conlee said. "And in the spring, after hibernation, he will return to the same bird feeder.
Locking garbage bins, securing trash cans and keeping bird seed and pet food out of the yard is the best way for individuals and neighborhoods to keep bears away, Conlee said.
"If a Dumpster has no good locking mechanism, the bear will find a way to get food out of it," she said.
If there is no food around, a bear might still come through, but he will just keep on moving.
Fortunately, the black bears' fear of people usually keeps them at a distance, Chague said. But if a bear becomes accustomed to being around people, by seeing them near a bird feeder he is eating from or, even worse, being fed by people, it will only turn out bad for the bear.
If a bear becomes a nuisance by starting to approach humans, he will be tranquilized and relocated. But if he returns after that (black bears have a roaming range of about 150 miles), euthanasia is a possible next step.
Someone who comes across a black bear in the wild should clap their hands to alert the bear to their presence, while slowly backing away. Usually the bear will simply withdraw. If the bear starts pounding his paws on a tree or on the ground, or starts snapping his jaws and huffing, that is the bear's way of warning others that they are too close.
If the bear runs up a tree, he's scared. He'll remain in the tree until the threat is gone. If someone sees a bear in a tree, they should leave the area and the bear will come down when he feels it's safe.
Chague said it is important that people reinforce the idea that bears should fear them. From a distance, honking horns, banging pots and pans together, any kind of loud noise, will give bears the idea to stay away from people.
If they come too close, a person should stand tall, make noise and back away. Their timid nature will convince them to head the other way, Conlee said. It's best not to run away, as that would feed into a wild animal's "chase instinct."
"The best thing to do with bears, as with any wildlife, is to respect them from a distance," she added.
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