Last week, Northampton passed a regulation prohibiting the feeding of bears and other wildlife, with the exclusion of bird feeders. They are not the only municipality dealing with multiple bear sightings. With all the recent bear sightings, I thought it appropriate to cover the subject this month. The following information is directly from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife). According to MassWildlife, Massachusetts is the third most densely populated state in the country (6 million people living in 5 million acres) and black bears have been increasing in numbers and distribution from approximately 100 in the 1970s to 3000 in 2005. It is estimated that black bears have lost over 60 percent of their historical habitat range and as human encroachment increases, this species has a great capacity to live in close proximity to people. Unfortunately, many bears are shot needlessly because of unfounded fear and human carelessness.
In Massachusetts, black bear males average 230 lbs. and females 140 lbs. Lengths range from 3½ to 6 feet and shoulder height from 2½ to 3½ feet. Black bears are highly intelligent and adaptable.
They have good eyesight, hearing and an extraordinary sense of smell used to locate food and recognize potential danger. They are excellent climbers and commonly use trees for resting and escape cover and to protect their young. Black bears mate between mid-June and mid-July. After breeding, the fertilized egg develops into a minute ball of cells remaining free-floating in the uterus and implanting itself in the uterine wall in late November if the female is well nourished. The small cubs are born in the den in mid- to late January. Litter sizes are usually 2 or 3. Cubs exit the den in early to mid-April and remain with the mother for about 17 months, at which time she comes into estrus (heat) again and chases the yearling bears away. Young females take up residence near their mother’s area, but the young males wander for many miles. Bears are active in daytime during spring and fall, but are more active during dawn and dusk hours in summer. Bears are omnivores, meaning that they eat both vegetation and flesh. Much of their diet consists of vegetative matter. In spring bears consume lush emergent vegetation like skunk cabbage and leftover nuts in hardwood areas. In summer, emerging berry crops are preferred. Corn fields and oak, beech, or hickory stands are favored in fall. They also eat grubs, insects, feed on carrion (dead animals) and occasionally prey on young deer. Bears are also known to visit birdfeeders, cornfields, orchards and beehives. They have good long-term memory and can remember the location of food sources years after the first visit. Adult female bears use home ranges averaging 9 to 10 square miles while adult males may have ranges exceeding 120 square miles. Depending on food availability, bears enter the den between mid-November and early December and exit between early March and mid-April. They commonly den in brush piles, under fallen trees or a jumble of rocks, or in a mountain laurel thicket. During this period they sleep soundly but may wake up and forage in mild weather or they may bolt if frightened.
Seeing such a large animal like a black bear may cause concern or even fear, however, black bears are typically wary of people and will most times avoid any contact with humans. When at first you see a bear, it may not immediately recognize you as a human and may be curious until it scents you. If the bear stands up, he is not going to attack but is curious and wants a better sniff or view. Remain calm and retreat slowly. Experts say do not run as this may illicit a chase response from the bear. Rather, make the animal aware of you by clapping, talking, or making other sounds. A bear’s first response to something unusual is to flee. Never try to approach or pursue a bear if one should show up. Usually the bear found its way into the situation and will likely find its way out if given the chance.
PREVENTING CONFLICTS WITH BEARS
- Do not approach bears.
- Do not intrude between a female bear and her cubs.
- Keep dogs restrained and at a respectful distance away.
- DO NOT FEED BEARS. Bears can become accustomed to humans and dependent on human associated foods. Some are then likely to cause property damage and become a nuisance. It then places the bear in jeopardy of being destroyed because it is no longer afraid of people.
- Take down birdfeeders before April 1 and put them back up in late November or early December. I keep my bird feeders out from the first snow fall to spring. I also allow all my seed bearing flowers and plants such as coneflowers to remain overwinter to provide additional food for birds.
- Do not leave pet food outside.
- Secure trash in closed containers in a garage or other outbuilding. Put trash barrels out the morning of trash pick up, not the previous evening.
- Businesses and campgrounds should consider using bear proof dumpsters.
- Beekeepers can use temporary or permanent electric fences to safeguard hives.
- Protect orchards and crops by using temporary electric fencing.
If you are experiencing problems with bears or you have any questions regarding them, you may contact the MassWildlife Connecticut Valley Wildlife District in Belchertown at (413) 323-7632 or if the bear is in a highly populated area, call the Environmental Police 24 hour radio room at (1-800-632-8075). For more detailed information on bears go to www.mass.gov/masswildlife. The Westfield Conservation Commission would like to thank MassWildlife for the information presented here.
Karen Leigh is the Westfield Conservation Commission Coordinator and can be reached (413) 572-6281.