Don't Feed the Bears
It’s bear hunting season. No, not the time of year when people hunt bears (that starts in late August). Bears are hunting hard for food and they could end up scrounging in your backyard.
When bears emerge from their dens each spring, they’re hungry and their natural food supplies are at a low point. Berries are prime forage for bears in the summer and then nuts, especially beechnuts, in the fall. But in spring, even the insect life is meager. So until the wild strawberries mature about mid June, all bears have to eat are plants, such as grasses, clover and leaves. That's not too appetizing for bears, which like humans, have simple stomachs and find it difficult to digest plants.
Normally bears are seldom seen, but when they’re hungry, they’ll go after garbage, pet food or barbecue grills coated with grease. They may steal corn and fruit, raid beehives, and make off with livestock, such as small pigs. Bears have been known to take sheep and even cattle. They can prove nerve-racking for horses, which may break through a fence if a bear walks through their pasture.
“When they’re losing weight, when they’re starving, they do things that they normally wouldn’t do,” Randy Cross, a state wildlife biologist who specializes in bears, once told me.
Many of the nuisance bears are young males two to three years old, who are away from their mothers and striking out alone for the first time. They lack experience, but not confidence. They’re bold, curious and often in need of an easy meal.
“They find a pole with a funny shaped box of sunflower seeds on top and they go to the next place and find the same thing and nothing really happens to them,” Cross said. “They don’t know that it’s a bad deal. It looks pretty good to them.”
So the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife just issued its annual plea to stop putting out bird seed or leaving garbage or barbecue grills unprotected. And, of course, you should never – ever – give bears food on purpose.
IFW also reported a recent incident in Livermore Falls, where a mother bear and two 80-pound yearlings had to be trapped and moved from a neighborhood -- again. They already had been trapped in New Hampshire and moved to the northern New Hampshire woods. They found their way to Maine last year and while wandering through Livermore Falls, people reportedly hand-fed them or placed bird seed outside for them. Naturally enough, the bears returned for more this year and some people obliged, but others in the area weren’t so keen on having bears so close.
“The best way to keep bears in the wild is to not make it easy for them to make themselves at home in your yard,” Jennifer Vashon, also an IFW biologist, said in the press release.
IFW’s advice if a bear does show up in your backyard is to: “Stay calm. Shout at it like you would to chase an unwanted dog. Most bears are timid enough to be scared away by yelling, waving or banging pots. Check first before going outside. Black bears blend into night skies, thus providing the chance of an encounter. Use outside lights to full advantage and look outside from a safe position, such as a porch or upstairs window.”
Most bears prefer natural foods and when they become available, the bears fade back into the woods and the complaints stop. But not always. If bears keep getting rewarded with food and never suffer any consequences, some of them become “career criminals,” Cross said.
“It becomes a way of life for them,” he said. “These are the bad ones because you can’t teach them any better. You can’t get them to reform and go back to being good bears living in the wild.”
In those cases, bears are relocated or in extreme cases killed. IFW often uses a “culvert” trap, a huge cylinder on a trailer, so a bear can be hauled away when it’s caught. Yet even if a bear is freed many miles away, the chances are good it will return. Bears more than one year old have a strong homing instinct, biologists say.
There are an estimated 23,000 black bears in Maine and more than a half-million in North America — 10 times more than grizzlies — but the number of people killed by black bears is remarkably low, experts say.
Most incidents are the result of black bears developing a taste for human food, not humans. So don’t feed bears, not even by accident. That’s the key to keeping bear attacks on people extremely rare in Maine, said Ken Elowe, director of IFW’s Bureau of Resource Management.
“It can happen. It has happened,” Elowe said, “but it doesn’t happen often, especially considering the number of bear out there.”