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October 14, 2022

Troy Wall

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State Environmental Officials Remind Public of Black Bear Presence and Provide Tips to Avoid Conflicts

BOSTON – With black bears actively trying to increase body fat ahead of the winter season, the Department of Fish and Game’s (DFG) Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) and the Massachusetts Environmental Police (MEP) are asking the public to help keep bears wild by removing all easily available food sources, such as bird seed feeders and unsecured trash cans. During this time of year, black bears across Massachusetts are in the process of fattening up in preparation for hibernation, which begins as early as November. Importantly, because they don’t eat or drink during hibernation, fall is an important time for bears to gain the fat reserves required to keep them alive during the winter season.

“Some bears have become accustomed to human-associated foods, such as bird seed, trash, and pet food, and are more likely to unfortunately cause damage and become a nuisance,” said Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Ron Amidon. “Removal of food sources and other attractants is key to preventing problems with bears.”

Black bears are omnivores, meaning they eat both vegetation and meat. In the fall, they enter what is called hyperphagia, a compulsion to consume as much high-calorie food as possible. While bears naturally seek out calorie-rich foods like ripened corn and stands of oak, beech, and hickory trees, they will also visit bird feeders, chicken coops, orchards, and beehives. It is not unusual for bears to use residential areas, and they are often attracted to yards by bird feeders and unsecured trash.

“It’s important for the public to understand that just seeing a bear is not a public safety threat,” said Massachusetts Environmental Police Colonel Shaun Santos. “As the bear range expands eastward, many communities will begin seeing bears for the first time and residents will need to learn important strategies to coexist with bears.”

Depending on food availability and snow cover, bears enter their winter dens between mid-November and early December and exit between early March and mid-April. Bears commonly den in brush piles, under fallen trees or jumbles of rocks, or in mountain laurel thickets. A litter of usually two or three cubs is born in the den in mid-to-late January and they remain with the sow (adult female) for about 17 months.

“Here in Massachusetts, we have been tracking the movements of bears for many years,” said MassWildlife Black Bear Project Leader Dave Wattles. “Our research shows that bears will keep revisiting neighborhoods where bird feeders and other human-foods are present. They remember the location of food sources year after year, and this information is often passed from the sow to her cubs.”

With the increasing number of black bears found in many areas of Massachusetts, it is important for all residents to know how to prevent problems. While people living in western Massachusetts have been coexisting with bears for years, others in the eastern part of the state may be surprised to learn that black bears likely live nearby as well. In the mid-1970s, the Massachusetts black bear population was estimated at under 100, and now today the population is estimated to be over 4,500. The public plays a key role in preventing problems with bears now and into the future. To be effective, it’s important for entire neighborhoods to adhere to the following guidelines:

Bird feeders

  • If you live in an area with bears, it is best to avoid bird feeders altogether. Bears finding a bird feeder, bird seed, corn or other bird food will often revisit that site. Bird feeders draw bears closer to people, resulting in bears losing their fear of people. This process is called habituation. It’s not safe for bears or people to be close to one another. If you choose to put out feeders, doing so in the winter when bears are denned decreases the chances of a bear coming to your feeder. In general, most bears are denned from mid-December through February. Although most bears in Massachusetts enter winter dens, MassWildlife biologists have tracked bears that remained active for some or all of the winter if food is available. It is important that you remove the entire feeder at the first sign of bear activity.
  • Many wild animals are attracted to bird feeders including wild turkeys and coyotes. Since bird feeders attract small mammals like squirrels, they can also attract animals like fishers and bobcats who prey upon the smaller animals.
  • For those people who enjoy birds in their yard, MassWildlife suggests growing native plants, shrubs, and trees to attract birds. Adding a water feature is a big draw for birds.  Taking these actions may increase the diversity of birds you see and will prevent the unnatural feeding of bears and other kinds of neighborhood wildlife.
  • Some bears have learned to empty bird feeders without destroying the feeder. DO NOT continue to fill a feeder.
  • Do not leave empty feeders out. Residual smell and the sight of feeders can still attract bears.

Bees, chickens, crops, and livestock

Garbage, compost, and other attractants

  • Store all garbage in closed containers in a garage or outbuilding. Do not leave your garbage barrels outside overnight. Rather, put them by the roadside before pickup. Using double bags or sprinkling with ammonia will help reduce odors. Bears and other wild and domestic animals will tip cans and scatter garbage. Smelly cans may attract bears even if there isn’t anything in them, so store garbage cans inside.
  • Compost responsibly. Do not throw meat scraps, greasy, oily or sweet materials in your compost pile. These kinds of food attract bears and other animals.
  • Bear-proof garbage cans may be available from municipalities or waste management contractors. In communities where bears are more common, bear-proof dumpsters are recommended for apartments, condos and campgrounds.
  • Clean greasy barbecues and grills after each use. Do not leave food scraps, grease containers or spilled grease in your yard.

Pet owners

  • Pet food is a tasty treat for bears so don’t leave pet food outdoors.
  • The presence of a dog could trigger a bear to be aggressive. Keep dogs leashed and never let dogs chase or interact with bears.
  • Check your yard for bears before letting your dog out.
  • If you encounter a bear while with your dog, back away slowly and leave the area.

For more information about black bears and how to prevent conflicts, please visit MassWildlife’s webpage regarding the species.