Multiple sightings in downtown Brandon and statewide
By LEE J. KAHRS
RUTLAND COUNTY — A perfect storm of issues has led to a huge increase in nuisance bear incidents since the spring, and fish and wildlife officials say it’s the humans that need to change their ways.
“We’ve had a lot more calls than normal,” said Vermont Game Warden Abigail Serra, who covers Rutland County, including Brandon. “I would say more than double the normal amount, and a lot more right in (Rutland) city.”
A lot more bears have been seen in downtown Brandon, too, and in the outskirts as well. Jed Pauls and Laura O’Brien live on Carver Street just a block from the center of town. O’Brien was home with the couple’s two daughters at 7 a.m. on a recent Tuesday when a large black bear wandered into the yard and destroyed a bird feeder.
“I was on a bike ride, but they watched that bear for about 30 minutes,” Pauls said, adding that a seed bag O’Brien tied around the pole to keep the squirrels out didn’t work too well for bears.
In fact, calls have almost doubled. Serra reported getting 17 bear calls between January and June 2019. This year in that time, she has received 26 bear calls.
A call for bear sightings in Brandon on The Reporter’s Facebook page garnered over 20 responses, numerous photos and one video. At least three residents said while they hadn’t seen an actual bear, their garbage was strewn about after a bear got to it. Other residents reported sightings everywhere from Forest Dale to Birch Hill Road, Arnold District Road to McConnell Road and all the way to Mount Pleasant.
The target? Food. A number of factors are forcing black bears out of the woods in search of food, including the drought, a late spring, a bear cub boom and a pandemic.
“We do try to educate the public,” Serra said, “but you’d be surprised how many people don’t understand they have to take in their garbage and bird feeders.”
Forrest Hammond is the bear specialist for the Vermont Agency of Fish & Wildlife. He said the recent early spring and current drought conditions has reduced the amount of green vegetation the bears eat in the deep woods, forcing them to come down into civilization looking for food.
“There was good food availability followed by a poor food year,” he said. “Last year was an incredibly good year for bears with a lot of food, so we expect to have more bear conflicts than we did last year.”
Also, berry season is still at least a month away, so that is not yet a food source for bears.
A third issue is the bumper crop of bear cubs born this past winter, Hammond said, out of a higher number of female bears than usual.
“Bears tend to synchronize their reproductive success with cubs, so last year, female bears maintained higher weights and had cubs, younger bears had cubs, too. Then they came out of hibernation early because spring came early.
“They ate the nuts first, then any succulent vegetation,” Hammond said. “They probably had trouble lactating, and then we didn’t get much rain. So, females with cubs are pretty desperate for food, and we have a larger number of females with cubs in town.”
And on porches and in backyards in town, bears are finding the perfect food: black sunflower seeds and suet. They’re aromatic, meaty and filled with protein, and with more people home due to COVID-19, more folks are hanging bird feeders so they can do some bird watching. And, more people are home to actually see the bears.
“Seeds are a natural things for bears to go after,” Hammond said. “Black oil sunflower seeds, bears can smell those from a great distance. One feeder can provide more of the nutritional needs of a bear.”
But the nuisance, or bear “conflict” doesn’t end there. Once a bear successfully finds food somewhere, it will keep coming back for more.
“Once they get that food reward and nothing bad happens to them, they start branching out into garbage, dog food… they lose their fear of people more,” Hammond said. “They aren’t there because of us, they’re there because of food, and the more times they do that without consequences, they’ll keep at it.”
Hammond said it frustrates him when people send him photos of bears in their yard.
“They shouldn’t be taking pictures,” he said. “They should be yelling, banging pots and pans, clapping… tone of voice is everything. Use it to scare them off.”
Fewer bears, more composting
There have been efforts to reduce the bear population in Vermont, and those efforts have paid off. Lengthening bear hunting season helped, Hammond said. Ten years ago, he estimates peg the bear population at 10,000. That number is down to between 3,500 and 5,500 bears now.
“It’s impossible to census a forest-dwelling animal,” Hammond said.
Right now, the focus is on education, particularly related to composting, which is about to be mandatory in Vermont as of July 1. Composting is the breaking down of food waste to create organic matter that can be added to soil to help plants grow. The practice also keeps food waste out of landfills.
But it’s not easy to do and there is a learning curve,” Hammond said, and bears will find compost bins that are not sealed or maintained properly.
“We’re working with the Department of Environmental Protection on outreach workshops,” he said. “But if done correctly, there are very few odors and not attractive to bears.”
He said the hardest part is finding the right amount of dry matter to mix with the food waste, as it’s the dry matter that absorbs the odors.
“People should not compost meat or grease or smelly things,” he said. “We’re worried that people with think they can throw kitchen waste out it their backyard.”
And it’s people who have to change, Hammond said, if the bears are going to stop coming into town. Take down the birdfeeders and suet, secure garbage in a building, and don’t leave anything that a bear might eat. Also, everyone has to be committed to the cause.
“Some of us are losing sleep over this,” he said, “that people will be slow to change their behavior. To be able to live with these animals, we have to change our behavior. If one person does, but their neighbor doesn’t, the bears are going to check both places. And next month, it will get worse.”
For more information on proper composting, visit www.dec.gov and go to “Solid Waste and Recycling”, then go to “food scraps.”