Sharing the land with black bears

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Sunday, April 27
It's springtime in the Berkshires, and the bears are on the move. We're talking about the big, black variety — not some upstart county sports team.

Each year beginning in mid-March or early April, bears weighing more than 300 pounds remind us that Berkshire County is their turf, too. And right around now, the Bay State's thriving black bear population — 3,000 and rising — is out scouting for food.

They are most plentiful in the hinterlands of Western Massachusetts, including the Berkshires. The bulk of the population lies west of the Connecticut River and Interstate 91. Wildlife officials don't keep specific population numbers by county, but Berkshire County had the highest number of bears hunted and killed in the state last year.

Omnivorous bears prefer nuts, berries and various vegetation — corn is a summertime favorite — and occasionally go after goats, pigs or other livestock. But most of the bears' preferred nonmeat food sources are scarce this time of year, which invariably leads them into people's backyards.

The main lure of these large creatures is simple.

"It starts with the birdfeeder," said James E. Cardoza, a biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife and the leader of MassWildlife's bear program.

Despite ongoing efforts by MassWildlife to get people to remove birdfeeders from their property, many folks don't listen, he said. That can create a "problem bear" — one that becomes habituated to humans and causes troubles for both species. Once bears become accustomed to people and human-associated foods, they are likely to cause property damage and become a nuisance.

For the past 38 years, Cardoza and his MassWildlife comrades have monitored the health, growth and geographical distribution of the commonwealth's bear population. By 1970, there were only about 100 black bears in Massachusetts, mainly due to development, hunting and roadway construction, which disrupted bear habitats by breaking up forest areas.

Since then, there has been roughly a thirty-fold increase in the black bear population, according to experts such as Cardoza, who is among the state's leading authorities on Ursus americanus, as the species is known. Human development and legal protections have played important roles in that increase.

By humans unintentionally providing extra food sources for bears — birdseed, garbage and compost heaps, for example — the population has flourished. But scientists are unsure how these supplemental food sources will affect the long-term viability of the state's bear population, whose current annual growth rate hovers around 10 percent.

"It has certainly gone up steadily," Cardoza said of the bear population. "It's a long-term trend."

No longer endangered

Black bears mate between mid-June and mid-July, with the dominant male breeding with several females. Cubs usually are born in a den in mid- to late January, with litter sizes ranging from two to three cubs in Massachusetts.

They typically like to den in hollows beneath fallen trees in forest or mountain areas.

Bears no longer are endangered in Massachusetts, but strict hunting guidelines remain in place. By the 1980s, the hunting season was expanded to 35 days — 17 days in September and 18 in November. Officials currently aren't considering lengthening the hunting season, according to Lisa Capone, a MassWildlife spokeswoman.

Tony Gola, a biologist with MassWildlife's district office in Pittsfield, said the agency doesn't have the financial resources to break down the bear population by county. However, MassWildlife does monitor about a dozen bears outfitted with radio collars, tracking their whereabouts to learn more about distribution, growth and reproductive habits.

No radio-collared bears are in Berkshire County, but officials acknowledge that the county is home to a sizable bear population.

The county traditionally has the highest annual bear harvest in Massachusetts. "Harvest" is the preferred euphemism for bear kills — the actual number of bears hunted and killed each year. In 2007, 71 bears were harvested in the Berkshires, while Franklin County ranked second with 33.

Food and shelter are the main attractions for bears in developed areas. And run-ins with them are becoming more common, as recent encounters suggest.

Some locals say the furry giants have gotten downright cheeky, returning to food sources such as garbage cans and birdfeeders even after they repeatedly have been shooed away.

Wildlife officials say people can easily reduce the chance of a bear encounter by removing feeders during bear season — roughly mid-March to late November or early December — and by placing waste in secure receptacles away from dwellings.

Myth of mothers

The commonly held notion of the hyperprotective mother bear who will attack people if they get between her and her cubs is somewhat of a myth. Black bear sows are extraordinarily tolerant of people who approach their cubs, according to the MassWildlife Web site, which still cautions against stressing or harassing bears, particularly a female with cubs.

There have been no known black bear attacks against humans in Massachusetts since the early 1800s, according to the Web site. The same cannot be said for grizzly bears, however, which generally are more aggressive. In the United States, that species exists only in Alaska and select Western states.

Black bear sightings are common throughout Berkshire County — even in Pittsfield, home to the largest concentration of people and industry in the Berkshires.

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Residents of Wilson Park, a city-run housing project off Wahconah Street, are regularly visited by a large bear that raids the trash cans behind their homes. Some residents have even snapped photos of the hairy visitor.

"We had a bear standing on its hind legs who had to be well over 7 feet tall," said Arin Ridley, who has seen bears behind her unit on numerous occasions. "Last summer it was bad. We were seeing (the bear) every day because it wasn't moving. I think it's dangerous because all the kids want to play out back."

Within the past month, a bear was spotted walking along Pittsfield's West Housatonic Street in broad daylight, according to police reports. And last month in Lenox, a Bentrup Court resident reported seeing bears in his backyard one morning.

"They seem to be more predominant now than before," said Peter Arment, who watched as a hungry mother and her cub ravaged a $35 birdfeeder that was hanging from a tree.

The mother, weighing 250 to 300 pounds, delicately climbed the spindly tree and knocked the feeder to the ground. After munching on spilled seed, the pair ambled back into the woods behind Arment's house.

Arment said bears have visited his Lenox property for the past few years. Last spring, a large one casually walked up to a sliding glass door to his house, located in a residential neighborhood off East Street.

"It was staring in at us," Arment said. "I won't say they're brazen. But if they're hungry, they'll come right up to you."

Suburban bear sprawl

Most bears generally roam the remote woodlands and forests west of the Connecticut River, but the animals also have popped up in suburban Boston, with sightings in Salisbury and Norwood.

Cardoza said a dead bear was found along Interstate 495 in Hopkinton, a western suburb. There are roughly 12 to 15 road kills a year in the state, he said.

Whether people consider these large animals — males range from 130 to 600 pounds and females from 100 to 400 pounds — to be cute or dangerous, the stereotypical view of the shy bear seems to be on the wane.

Last May, dozens of people witnessed a mid-size male trot through downtown Northampton on a sunny afternoon — one of several bear sightings within a short period of time in the Hampshire County town. And last summer, a wayward bear turned up on Lyman Street in Holyoke, among the poorest and most densely populated cities in the state.

Nearly everyone in the Berkshires has a bear story or two — even well-known TV film critic Gene Shalit, whose Stockbridge home was raided by a curious cub six years ago.

Shalit got a scare when a mother and two cubs looking for food near his Interlaken home got too close for comfort.

Attracted by bird feed atop an air-conditioning unit mounted in a bedroom window, the mother eventually pulled the unit from the window. She was too big to fit through the opening, "but one of the baby bears gave it a try," Stockbridge Police Chief Richard B. Wilcox told The Eagle.

When the frisky cub gained entry, Shalit called the police. After a few minutes, Shalit and a Stockbridge officer locked the cub in an adjoining den. They then removed the den's air-conditioning unit to create an escape route for the frightened little bear, who quickly rejoined its mother and sibling outside.

"I have had a sit-down with the bears, and we came to an agreement: They're going to stay in the woods, and I'm going to stay in the house," Shalit said Friday. "... We smoked the peace pipe."

Several calls were reported in West Pittsfield last summer, including a 300-pound visitor who crashed a West Street party in August. The revelry quickly subsided when the large bear showed up, stopping less than 5 feet from children who were jumping on an inflatable "Bouncey-Bounce."

Despite the party's loud music and a partygoer who banged on pots and pans to frighten the bear, the animal "just stood there panting until it decided to move along," said Michelle Hayes, the co-host of the party.

Because bears have good long-term memories, they can recall the location of a periodic food source many years after their first visit. That, Cardoza said, is good reason for people to remove birdfeeders from their land.

To reach Conor Berry: cberry@berkshireeagle.com; (413) 496-6249.

If you encounter a bear ...

  • Don't run. Running will make the bear think you are prey, and that could cause the animal to chase you. Despite their lumbering appearance, black bears can run fast — far faster than humans — so don't try to outrun one.

  • Make noise. Most black bears will retreat if you make noise or throw an object in their direction. If you find yourself face to face with a bear, have someone farther away create loud noises as a distraction, then back away from the bear slowly.

  • Report it. Call your local non-emergency police department phone number, the MassWildlife Pittsfield office at (413) 447-9789, or the Massachusetts Environmental Police at (800) 632-8075.

    SOURCE: MassWildlife. More information on black bears is available on the agency's "bear page" at www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/dfw_black_bear.htm.

  • Make noise. Most black bears will retreat if you make noise or throw an object in their direction. If you find yourself face to face with a bear, have someone farther away create loud noises as a distraction, then back away from the bear slowly.

  • Report it. Call your local non-emergency police department phone number, the MassWildlife Pittsfield office at (413) 447-9789, or the Massachusetts Environmental Police at (800) 632-8075.

    SOURCE: MassWildlife. More information on black bears is available on the agency's "bear page" at www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/dfw_black_bear.htm.

  • Report it. Call your local non-emergency police department phone number, the MassWildlife Pittsfield office at (413) 447-9789, or the Massachusetts Environmental Police at (800) 632-8075.

    SOURCE: MassWildlife. More information on black bears is available on the agency's "bear page" at www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/dfw_black_bear.htm.

    SOURCE: MassWildlife. More information on black bears is available on the agency's "bear page" at www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/dfw_black_bear.htm.


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