By Thomas Christopher
For Capital Region Independent Media
If you think this past fall was notable for the number of encounters with black bears, said Laura Simon, you are right.
An urban wildlife ecologist who completed a master’s degree at the Yale University School of the Environment, Simon has made a career of defusing human/wildlife confrontations, as well as serving for 30 years as the president of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association. Given this, Simon has a professional interest in keeping track of where our black bears are spending their time.
This past fall, Simon noted, bears explored beyond their normal woodland range.
There is a natural cycle to the wild berry, nut, and acorn crops, she explains, and 2022 marked a low. Bears, as they prepare for their wintertime retreat to a den, need to pack on the weight, about three pounds per day, through the fall, which requires the consumption of a whopping 20,000 calories per day. If the abundance of natural foods is poor, the bears know where to turn.
In the suburban yards they will find bird feeders full of nutritious seeds, poorly secured food garbage, and even high-calorie foods such as meat scraps and dairy laid out in compost heaps.
The popularity of backyard chickens provides bears with another convenient food source, as do beehives.
And once a bear has tasted these riches, it will be back, Simon said. Indeed, mother bears that have become habituated to human-provided foods will even teach their cubs to forage for them.
The result can be frightening for human residents but are almost always far more serious for the bears, which will likely end up being identified as a threat and euthanized.
That’s what happened in October when a male black bear attacked a 10-year-old boy in northwest Connecticut. This has prompted calls for a bear-hunting season in Connecticut, something that, according to Simon, is unlikely to reduce the number of confrontations between humans and bears. Bear hunting is typically confined to forested areas where the resident bears are unaccustomed to people and do not pose a serious threat.
The problem bears are those that have already infiltrated the outskirts of populated areas, where hunting is not practical. In this sense, bear hunting is really just recreational, and to present it as a precaution against encounters with problem bears is misleading.
Instead, Simon directs people concerned about black bear encounters to the website of the Get Bear Smart Society (bearsmart.com). Starting with the fact that most problems with black bears originate in human behaviors, this group sponsors education not only in the basics of bear biology but also in the simple and easy ways in which a community can make itself less attractive to bears, such as promoting the use of bear-resistant garbage receptacles.
I was particularly interested by the information about bear behavior, which will help me read a bear and respond appropriately when I do encounter one, and the stories of communities that have put in place successful programs to promote peaceful coexistence.
It is important, Simon said, to keep this situation in perspective. There have been approximately 25 fatal attacks on humans by black bears nationwide over the past 20 years. That’s far less than the number of fatal attacks by dogs (an average of 33 per year) or even fatalities from lightning or eating tainted hamburgers.
If you are going to worry about wildlife, consider that deer cause an average of 200 human deaths every year by collisions with automobiles.
Treat bears with respect, certainly, is Simon’s message, but don’t panic at the sight of one.
To listen to my conversation with Laura Simon about coexistence with black bears, log onto the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast at berkshirebotanical.org.
Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art and The Gardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019). He is the 2021 Garden Club of America’s National Medalist for Literature, a distinction reserved to recognize those who have left a profound and lasting impact on issues that are most important to the GCA. Christopher’s companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at berkshirebotanical.org/growinggreener.