Our View: Learn how to behave in bear country

Green Mount National Forest officials issued a statement recently that bears repeating (if you'll pardon the pun): Keep food, garbage, birdfeeders and all other such temptations out of reach (and smell) of bears.

The statement was directed primarily at hikers and campers following an increase in encounters with bears. Officials report there have been numerous cases of bears looking for food recently, and in one case, a bear entered a tent.

"It is vital that people recreating in the Forest keep a clean campsite to ensure that bears and other animals don't forage for your food," said Ethan Ready, a spokesman for the forest, which has started posting alert notices at trailheads and other developed campsites.

"Bears are meant to be wild, and feeding them creates negative consequences for them," he said. "Bears that get too used to people may eventually have to be killed to ensure your safety."

The latest bear activity follows a number of bear-human encounters in northern New England this past spring. Conflicts are common in May, June and July, when bears have come out of hibernation and are hungry.

There were two such cases here in southern Vermont in recent months — the first on May 31 and another one on June 22, both with tragic consequences for the family dogs involved in the encounters. It's unknown if the same bear was involved with both attacks, but the two incidents took place within about a half-mile of each other in Wilmington, and in both cases the bear carried off and mortally wounded a dog that either barked or charged at the intruding bear.

The speculation is that the bear, which in one incident was seen with cubs, came up close to the houses in search of food. Vermont State Game Warden Rich Watkin said there were reports of bears getting into the garage of a residence about 400 feet away from the first incident about a-week-and-a-half before.

"They're intelligent creatures and it has probably had success in the past, and it's probably roaming that area ... for either the same or similar food sources," he told the Reformer.

Watkin said garbage and bird seed can provide more caloric intake than food found in the woods during the spring. He has noticed that bear-nuisance complaints begin to drop off once berries start to appear.

"Once they get access to abundant natural food sources, their need to come in is essentially mitigated by the natural food source," he said.

In some cases, however, the damage — in terms of the bear picking up bad habits — has already been done.

"Bears have the ability to learn from a single experience and this process may be all that is necessary for the animal to become conditioned to push over garbage cans to obtain food," according to bearsafe.com, the website of the Get Bear Safe Society. "As a result of learning, whenever the bear encounters garbage cans in the future, with or without any food odors, it will likely investigate them. In addition, the association between the smell and the reward has been made. In this situation the bear would likely be attracted to similar smells (eg. garbage on a porch). Regardless of the type of attractants, once bears have been successful in obtaining human foods, without any negative experience, they begin to develop new behavior patterns and may continue to seek food at human use sites."

Watkin stressed the importance of not leaving out food sources like garbage and bird seed, bear-proofing garbage containers and getting rid of trash more frequently.

"I really think it stems from our behavior," he said. "If we can just learn to behave better in bear country, I think these kinds of encounters wouldn't occur."


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