Black bears have been the source of much focus in Wilmington and the surrounding area in recent months. Two dogs were attacked and killed by bears in separate incidents in Wilmington in late May and in June. In September 2016, James Burke, of Wilmington, was arrested for deliberate feeding of black bears, and at Monday evening’s meeting, Watkin announced that a second individual, also of Wilmington, had been arrested that day for deliberate feeding of bears. Though Watkin did not identify the individual in the public meeting, he later confirmed that it was Claudine Penson.
Comeau opened the meeting by explaining Vermont Fish and Wildlife’s responsibility to Vermont’s black bear population, which includes a four-pronged approach of managing and conserving bear habitats; working with private landowners; guiding development projects to minimize negative impacts on bear populations; and overseeing black bear hunting season, including collecting biological information from harvested bears.
“And an ever-growing part of what we do is working with Vermonters and visitors to help manage and reduce conflicts with bears,” said Comeau, noting that in order for the work of VFWD to be effective, the public needs to be active in their efforts as well.
Comeau explained the sensory experience of bears as well as the longevity of their memory, and how the combination of the two can create major problems when bears have access to food sources like birdseed and garbage.
“Bears receive the world through smells and scents,” said Comeau. “It’s how they navigate and interpret what’s going on around them. They’re also intelligent and have long memories, and they have been proven to have good problem-solving skills. They also live into their 30s.”
Comeau stressed that, keeping in mind bears’ long memories, when a sow and her cubs develop an understanding that a residence is a source of food, those learned habits could last decades.
Comeau described bears as “opportunistic omnivores,” noting that they are always looking for opportunities to eat easier and better foods. For example, Comeau said that beechnuts, available in the fall, typically make up a big part of a bear’s diet, because they are high in protein and are highly caloric for their size.
Using an example of beechnuts, Comeau explained why bird feeders filled with seed are so alluring to bears. “If you think about what a bear has to go through to find a beechnut compared to a bird feeder where we just have a tube filled with thousands of calories for them, once they start finding bird feeders, it’s really hard for them to go back,” said Comeau.
Comeau stressed that no one living in an area where black bears also live should put bird seed out between April and December. “There is no bear-proofing bird seed,” said Comeau. “Bears are problem solvers. Where there is food, they will find a way to get it.”
Garbage, Comeau explained, should be kept indoors until it is ready to be collected or brought to a transfer station.
In addition to birdseed and garbage, chickens and bees can also be attractors for bears. “Electric fencing is the best thing you can do for beehives and chickens,” said Comeau, adding that even if you do have electric fencing, the area needs to be kept clean of feed. Comeau said that VFWD recommends that if bears are a problem, attracting them to the electric fence with peanut butter may be useful, because the shock of the fence will give the bear a negative experience that it won’t be eager to seek out again.
Though peanut butter and an electric fence may be a solution for mitigating an existing problem, Comeau said that due to bears’ long-term memory ability, the best approach to take is to be vigilant about keeping bear attractants away from bears before there is ever an issue.
Comeau said that if you do see a bear in your yard, it’s best to be loud and hostile toward the bear. “We advise people who see them in their yard to not just take a picture but be aggressive toward them,” said Comeau. “Make noise, and make them uncomfortable.”
Comeau said that if you encounter a bear in the woods, it’s best to make the bear aware of your presence, but it is not necessary to scream. “Speak loud enough so they look at you, and stand there and be calm, look down, and slowly back away to give them enough space,” said Comeau. “Most black bears look at us as a threat as well, so if they have an escape route and enough space they’re usually going to want to turn and run.”
Comeau said that typically, bears have a healthy fear of dogs, too. Watkin said that in his experience, it’s when a bear has been conditioned to unnatural food sources that a bear won’t run away.
“Bears that are encountered in the woods typically want nothing better than to get out of there,” said Watkin. “With the majority of calls coming in about a bear not being scared, nine times out of 10 there’s a food source that gave it an additional reason for wanting to stay. There are so many calories in garbage. I’ve literally walked up to bears that are feeding (on garbage) and it has been like a standoff. These encounters are usually generated by people themselves and that is the broader reason we’re here.”
In the question and answer period of the evening, Chimney Hill resident Tonya Sparano said that bears have always been common in her yard but they haven’t been aggressive. “But now there have been two instances of dogs being attacked by bears,” said Sparano.
Sparano suggested that perhaps putting garage out the night before should be a fineable offense, and that the proceeds from collecting on the violations should go toward planting more natural food sources for bears.
“There are towns in New Hampshire that have enacted ordinances making it illegal to put the garbage out before the day of pickup,” said Watkin. “And they issue fines to those people.”
Watkin said that at the state level, there have been conversations about enacting a fine for putting garbage out prematurely. “The dialogue has started,” said Watkin. “I understand that changing laws and adding new laws is not an easy thing to do, but there has been conversation.”
Lynne Matthews, who was in attendance, said when she was on the planning commission, the concept of a fine for putting garbage out early was brought up. “It was shot down,” said Matthews. “Just as we were shot down in reference to higher fines for feeding wildlife.”