Thomas Christopher: The bear facts - co-existing peacefully

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When I was a boy, which admittedly was some time ago, I remember how excited we got when we spotted a deer. They were very rare in the New York suburbs where I grew up. That's changed. Now deer are almost as common a form of garden wildlife as blue jays; what's more, they are distressingly destructive. But if what I've been hearing is correct, we need to get ready for another new arrival, and this one will be even more challenging.

I'm referring to the black bear, Ursus americanus americanus.

Ever since we built a house in Massachusetts's southern Berkshire County, my wife and I have found evidence of bears. A short hike takes us to a tree with deep, parallel scratches in its bark; biologists think that bears mark trees in this way to communicate with each other. We've found bear scat in the woods, too, full of pits when the wild cherry trees are fruiting. Likewise, we'll occasionally see a bear crossing our road.

It wasn't until two years ago, though, that I actually encountered a cub wandering around my garden. This was at a time when my tomato patch was under assault by porcupines, and at the sight of the new intruder, I snapped. I ran into the garden yelling abuse, and the cub trotted off. My wife later pointed out that where there was a cub, there was probably a mother bear not far off.

When I called Andrew Madden, Western District manager of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife not long ago, he said although a more cautious approach was advisable, black bears are naturally shy and that making loud noises, as with a whistle or banging pots together, is one way to scare them off and remind them to stay out of your territory.

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Of course, this raises the issue of whose property that landscape actually is. There were surely bears roaming our patch of woods before we built our house, so one could argue that I am the interloper. But the fact is that bears have been very actively expanding into new areas of the eastern states. In Connecticut, for example, where I spend the working week, black bears had been extirpated by the mid-1800's and there were none in the state as recently as the 1980s. Now, a rapidly expanding population numbers several hundred.

I called Dr. Tracy Rittenhouse, a professor at the University of Connecticut, who has been researching the expansion of the bear population in that state. She told me that while bears are most common in the rural northwest corner of Connecticut, close to their longtime stronghold in the Berkshire Hills, they have been moving east and south. She noted they are happy to live around people, as long as the human population density is not too great. In neighborhoods where houses sit on lots of a couple of acres or more, bears will make themselves at home. When I asked Dr. Rittenhouse if there was anywhere in Connecticut that bears won't colonize, she replied, only somewhat jokingly, "downtown Hartford."

So, it seems we will have to come to terms with bear visits. They are especially likely to wander in at this time of year, when they are emerging from their winter sleep hungry and actively searching for new food sources. That's why it's best to feed birds naturally with berry-bearing plants and with plants that attract caterpillars, because bears find seed-filled bird feeders irresistible. Don't put out your garbage until the morning of collection, and then put it in sealed plastic bags inside an air-tight container. If you know bears are in your area, you can add a repellant: put an ammonia-soaked rag or sponge inside the top of the garbage container.

Once a bear has enjoyed a meal at your expense, they are likely to return. I have a neighbor in the Berkshires whose chicken house was targeted by bears, which came to steal the chicken feed. Soon, he found a mother and cub sleeping in his garden, and even trying out the Bentwood rocking chair he kept on his porch. This may seem funny, but at least one bear, having lost its fear of humans, became aggressive and had to be euthanized. Had the neighbor surrounded his chicken run with an electric fence, this sad eventuality could most likely have been avoided.

For more information about coexistence with bears, log onto thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast and listen to interviews with Dr. Rittenhouse and Andrew Madden.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including "Nature into Art, The Gardens of Wave Hill" (Timber press, 2019). His companion broadcast to this column, "Growing Greener," streams on WESUFM.org berkshirebotanical.org.


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