Bears in the backyard prompt neighborly concern

  • A bear appeared on Ann Benedetti’s back deck in Belchertown last week, eating nectar from a hummingbird feeder. Submitted photo/Ann Benedetti

  • The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife estimates there are over 4,500 black bears in Massachusetts. Submitted photo/Chantel Mallalieu

  • “When we built our house 28 years ago, we only had deer visit,” said Richard Jolivet of Granby. “Now we have bears, turkeys and bobcats.” Submitted photo/Richard Jolivet

  • “In general, we really have not had any problems with the bears,” Richard Jolivet said. “We coexist.” Submitted photo/Richard Jolivet

Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2018

BELCHERTOWN — Springtime is here, and as mother black bears forage for food, they are increasingly turning to bird feeders, garbage cans and compost piles to feed themselves and their kin as their population expands and habitat shrinks.

“Black bear populations are increasing in Massachusetts, with our area (especially close to Northampton) having one of the highest population densities,” said Erica Cross, the conservation administrator for Belchertown. “So the increase in sightings isn’t in our heads; there are more bears around and therefore more sightings.”

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife estimates there are over 4,500 black bears in Massachusetts, and their numbers have been growing since the 1970s. Hampshire County and lands west of the Connecticut River are well-established regions for black bears, but recently they have been expanding eastward, too.

Earlier this month, Ann Benedetti, 69, of Belchertown saw a black bear on her porch for the first time, eating the nectar from a hummingbird feeder. She keeps no other bird feeders and does not compost, so she was surprised to see a bear so bold.

“This feeder I have had on my deck for at least 20 years,” Benedetti said. “I was shocked to see him, so now it’s gone. There’s been a lot of bear sightings in town lately.”

From the safety of her home, she yelled at the bear to leave, and when that failed, resorted to banging two pots together to scare it away.

“We have a black bear sighting every single day,” said Belchertown Animal Control Officer Anna Fenton. “It’s just so frequent we don’t keep track.”

She encourages people living in areas with frequent bear sightings to follow MassWildlife’s guidelines to keep them away from residences — covering trash, taking down bird feeders and protecting chicken coops with electric fencing.

“You also have that increase in bold behavior where they are starting to break in to chicken coops and whatnot,” said Dave Wattles, a black bear and furbearer biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “Bird feeders are the gateway to bears exhibiting those behaviors.”

Mona Balicki of South Hadley said she recently saw a bear crossing Route 47 in Hadley near Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery.

“I have never in all my years in the Valley seen one,” Balicki said, adding she has lived in the Pioneer Valley for 67 years.

Keep an eye on the pets

During Southampton’s Memorial Day ceremony last month, a black bear sauntered through Center Cemetery, and Police Chief Michael Goyette shooed it away. Town Administrator Ed Gibson said they have taken to calling the chief the “bear wrangler.”

“Residents should not confront the bears,” Fenton said. “If they know there are bears in the neighborhood, they should keep an eye on their pets and their children.”

If you find yourself near a black bear, MassWildlife recommends backing away slowly while speaking in a calm voice, and making yourself appear larger by raising your arms over your head. Black bears seldom attack humans, but can become aggressive if they feel threatened or are separated from their cubs.

“Back up slowly — do not run. Running can shock the bear and scare it,” Cross said. “If you back up and give them space they will wander away on their own.”

As human development encroaches on bears’ woodland homes, it pushes them from their traditional habitat and forces them to find new sources of food. Bears have a keen memory, according to the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, and learn to revisit areas where they know they can find food. Bird feeders, garbage cans and compost piles are especially attractive and reliable places for an easy meal.

“In this town, there’s been a lot of homes being built, so the bears are losing their woods,” Benedetti said. “They are used to people now from raiding everyone’s bird feeders.”

Typically, black bears in New England hibernate from mid-December through February, during which time they give birth to their cubs. They emerge in April hungry and needing to find food for themselves and their cubs.

“I’m always slightly upset when people get upset by the animals that learn to live with us,” Cross said. “I think it’s wonderful that they find a way to use our resources as we kick them out of their natural habitat. I can’t blame them for finding a way to make it work.”

Cross explained that now, in the late spring when vegetation is dense, mother bears are teaching their growing cubs how to forage for food. Learning to find food in trash cans and bird feeders makes these cubs more comfortable around humans, which can pose problems.

“We’re at a critical mass, where bear population in (western Massachusetts) is increasing rapidly,” Wattles said. Despite a regulated hunting season, he said the population continues to climb.

Feeding bears is strongly discouraged, as it invites more into the neighborhood and puts others at risk. Male black bears generally range in weight from 130 to 600 pounds and females from 100 to 400 pounds, both with long curved claws that allow them to climb trees. They have a keen sense of smell, allowing them to find trace amounts of food.

“There are some people who put their bird feeders out for the bears,” Fenton said. “It ends up creating a mess for your neighbors down the road who have chickens, because the bears can get them, too.”

At the same time, others have learned to bear the presence of their wild animal neighbors. Richard Jolivet, 50, of Granby said bears frequent his backyard, and a sure sign of spring is waking up to his bird feeder torn down and emptied. This season, he said, they even had a bear sit on the porch and look in through the window.

“When we built our house 28 years ago, we only had deer visit. Now we have bears, turkeys, bobcats and bears. Oh, and lots of coyotes,” Jolivet said. “In general, we really have not had any problems with the bears. We coexist.”

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.