“Game Warden Sgt. Travis Buttle and I executed a search warrant at a residence on Whites Road in Wilmington and evidence was collected relevant to the deliberate feeding of bears, which is a crime in Vermont,” Game Warden Richard Watkin said on Tuesday. “Upon completion of the search, the homeowner, Claudine Penson, was charged.”
Watkin said Penson, who could not be reached for comment before press time, was previously issued a “black bear notice of violation” in July 2016. That notice, explained Watkin, is issued by game wardens. “It basically orders the offender to remove or contain any attractants capable of enticing bears, such as feed or garbage,” said Watkin. “It can be, and is, a precursor to being charged and gives the recipient a fair opportunity to clean up their act.”
Watkin revealed news of the charge to the crowd gathered at Monday evening’s public forum regarding black bears, which was hosted by Watkin and Jaclyn Comeau, a wildlife biologist for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s black bear program, after an audience member asked whether feeding bears came with a fine.
“That is the best question of the night,” said Watkin. “I just arrested someone this afternoon in Wilmington for feeding bears. I executed a warrant on the house. I ended up charging that individual, who has been feeding bears for five years. Last year, I issued an order and pretty much pleaded with them to stop feeding the bears. This year, it starts back up again. We brought a warrant to the house this afternoon and charged the individual. Will they stop for sure? I don’t know, but it’s going to get expensive.”
An arraignment has been scheduled for Penson for August 29. However, if Penson pays the fine associated with the charge, $434, she will not be required to appear in court.
Watkin told the crowd that he and his team are dedicated to enforcing the laws around deliberate feeding of black bears. “We want to let the public know that we are trying to combat this on an enforcement level,” said Watkin. “It’s one thing to incidentally leave garbage out all night, which you shouldn’t do and is still bad. But to keep putting food out, over and over, to attract bears? We’re going to go after that. And people need to know that.”
The statement, which was met with applause, comes at a time when the focus on black bears is high in Wilmington. Two dogs in the town have died as a result of confrontations with black bears, with one incident occurring on May 31 and the second on June 22. Feeding bears both non-deliberately and deliberately has been the source of much discussion in the town. In the fall of 2016, James Burke was charged with deliberate feeding of bears.
At Monday night’s presentation,Watkin and Comeau stressed the ways many engage in non-deliberate feeding of bears as well, by putting out birdseed or not securing garbage properly. Several residents at the event suggested that putting garbage out the night before garbage collection should be a fineable offense.
Nicki Steel, a neighbor of Penson’s, reacted to the news of the charges against Penson in a phone interview on Wednesday. Steel said that she has noticed an uptick in bear activity in the neighborhood in the past few years. “I’ve certainly noticed that bears have been more inquisitive in coming to my house,” said Steel. In one recent occurrence, a sow came up to a sliding glass door of Steel’s home, which Steel was sitting a few feet from. “That had never happened to me before,” said Steel.
Steel, who is a photographer and loves the outdoors, said she’s had several routine and nonthreatening encounters with bears in the past that gave her no concern. Typically, she says, she’s not afraid of bears. But in light of recent events, she finds herself uneasy.
“I’m being more careful about going outside now,” said Steel. “I’m more alert at my house and in the woods. And I don’t like that. I love wildlife. I’m doing a lot of wildlife photography. I love all of that. And I don’t like feeling uncomfortable like this.”
Steel attended Monday evening’s black bear presentation and said she was particularly struck when Comeau said black bears live up to 30 years and have very long memories. Steel said she is concerned that multiple recent incidents of residents feeding bears, deliberately or not, will have a lasting impact on the community at large.
“Even if everyone in the whole town, or even the whole region, was suddenly perfect and knew exactly what to do with birdseed, garbage, and compost, we have now trained many bears to feel like houses are a source of food,” said Steel. “Fixing that problem will take years.”
Steel said she wishes those who feed bears would think about the impact their actions are having on others. “They have to really realize that it’s not just about them, it’s about all of the people in the immediate neighborhood and the whole town,” said Steel.