Black bears are emerging from their winter dens early, in search of food

A black bear. (Courtesy Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department)

A black bear. (Courtesy Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department) Photo Courtesy Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department

Building damage caused by a bear that had become comfortable around a Vermont residence and attempted to access the kitchen in Summer 2022. Photo courtesy of Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.

Building damage caused by a bear that had become comfortable around a Vermont residence and attempted to access the kitchen in Summer 2022. Photo courtesy of Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.

Fresh bear tracks on a Vermont porch, photographed the first week of March. Photo courtesy of Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.

Fresh bear tracks on a Vermont porch, photographed the first week of March. Photo courtesy of Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.

By K. FIEGENBAUM

VTDigger

Published: 03-14-2024 4:45 PM

Reports have been coming in from around the state: Bears are leaving their dens after a shorter-than-usual winter sleep — and they’re hungry.

Late last week, the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife began urging Vermonters to take down their bird feeders, secure their garbage and put up electric fences to protect chickens and bees — almost a month earlier than the typical April 1 start of “bear aware” season.

According to Jaclyn Comeau, black bear project leader and wildlife biologist with the department, bears are emerging early from hibernation because of the state’s warmer-than-normal temperatures and general lack of snow.

Comeau explained that bears — who go into hibernation only once the landscape is rendered barren of food sources — are relatively “light sleepers.” Throughout the winter they will occasionally rouse themselves and step out of the den to assess what’s going on outside.

“In a year like this — where it’s been mild, there’s not a lot of snow for the most part — there’s not a lot constraining them to stay in those dens,” she said. “Some will go on brief walkabouts and if they just start finding food, and can consistently keep finding food, they will stay active.”

Some bears are finding the remains of last year’s abundant beechnut crop, one of their preferred delicacies. Others, Comeau said, are checking out backyards. (According to the department’s website, bird seed is high in fat and very difficult for hungry bears to resist.)

Wildlife officials have long urged New England residents to remove bear attractants, such as food sources, to reduce the potential for human-bear interactions, which can be unsafe for humans and, ultimately, the bears themselves.

“The best practice for everyone, no matter where you live in the state, is to start taking precautions now,” Comeau said. “Even if you have never had a bear issue at your house, take those steps. Once they have that positive food reward, it is going to take much more effort to deter them.”

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Bears have very good memories, Comeau noted, and are rather long-lived, surviving into their 20s and, on rare occasions, into their 30s.

“They are very good at remembering where they got food because their foods are not uniformly distributed across the landscape,” she said. “If they got a bird feeder from your backyard once, they will, for years, go back and just double-check to see if that food source is back.”

Last year, there was a large uptick in bear sightings in densely populated areas of the state, and data from the department released in the fall showed the number of black bears had reached a five-year high in 2022.

The number of bear incident reports tends to correlate with the beechnut crop, which generally does well every other year, Comeau said. In a year with an abundant crop, there tend to be fewer incident reports, though that was not the case in 2023.

Last year was the “busiest ‘quiet year,’” according to the department’s data.

“If the pattern holds, there will be more incidents this year than last year,” Comeau said. “These patterns can break, but what we’re expecting is that this year is going to be a hard year in the world of human-bear coexistence.”

Comeau added that the department wants Vermonters to report bear sightings through its website, both to gauge what’s going on in the state and to be able to share information directly with those who are dealing with bear issues.