Northern New England mulls ways to limit bear-human conflicts

BANGOR, Maine — Northern New England’s growing black bear population has awoken, and it’s coming for your garbage.

A year after a spring and summer marked by a high number of nuisance bear complaints, wildlife officials are encouraging people and bears to try to keep their distance from each other this time around. Conflicts between bears and humans are common in the months of May, June and July, when the bears have awoken from slumber and are in need of food that can be more easily acquired from people’s trash, yards and gardens than from the wild.

Last year’s total of 719 complaints of nuisance bears was the second highest in Maine since 2007, and there had been 34 by mid-May this year. The bear population has grown from about 30,000 in the early part of the decade to about 36,000 now, increasing the possibility of conflicts.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Maine guides are encouraging people to use common sense to avoid bears, which feast on easily available human food.

“People like to put their garbage out by the street the night before. That’s just like putting ice cream out for a fat kid,” said Jeff Lavway, a guide who runs a hunting lodge in Oxbow.

Maine bear biologist Jennifer Vashon said the number of complaints correlates with availability of natural foods such as berries, acorns and beechnuts. Last year’s dry weather sent bears looking for other foods around bird feeders, trashcans and pet dishes.

It’s too early to say if that’ll happen again this year, Vashon said, but it’s not too early to be bear safe. She said there will be fewer chances of complaints “if people are proactive and limit food odors” by doing things like keeping garbage and livestock feed indoors.

Vermont is coming off a high year for bear complaints in which game wardens in the state responded to 466 reports of bears that were involved in car crashes, damaged property or threatened public safety. A spokesman for the state said Vermont is on a pace to have fewer reports this year, but the number has picked up in the past couple weeks.

New Hampshire averages about 600 to 700 bear complaints per year, with rare high years such as 2012 generating more than 800. This month, state wildlife officials announced plans to capture and euthanize a mother bear and three cubs that have been spotted roaming near Dartmouth College for food. Public outcry followed, and the state released a new plan to capture and move the animals to the northern part of the state.

Most bear complaints in New Hampshire concern property and safety, though some involve threats to agriculture, state officials said. Last year there were more than 600, but this year could actually be less, officials said.

“So far, bear-human conflicts this spring have been at a very average rate and certainly down from last year’s level at this point in the season,” said Andrew Timmins, leader of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Bear Project.

The northern New England states all have bear hunts in the fall. The bear population is also growing elsewhere in New England, where debate is underway about how to control it. Connecticut’s Senate voted this month against a measure that would have permitted bear hunting in the state for the first time in more than a century.

South Portland, Maine, resident Brian Fauth had a bear in his backyard last year, chowing down on bird seed. He said he’s using fewer feeders this year.

“I have one that is squirrel proof, but probably wouldn’t be bear proof,” he said. “Haven’t had any encounters yet.”

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