How To Avoid Interactions With Bears

May 22, 2017

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department is warning people to mitigate the possibility of having a bad encounter with a bear. The department is already gearing up for what they expect to be record human-bear interactions this year.

According to Forrest Hammond, bear project leader for Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, there are about 5,500 bears in Vermont, which is he says is the "right" number of bears for the state.

The increase in human-bear interactions is due to where bears are now living in Vermont, Hammond told Vermont Edition Monday.

"Over the past 15 or 20 years, we've had a larger number of bears that used to live in more remote areas of the state, and as their population grew, they live now in areas that are more urban," Hammond explains. "And the chances of bears coming into contact with people in people's backyards are much greater, and they're actually producing young that are growing up in these areas. So the number of bear interactions is increasing at a much higher rate than the bear population is."

The department's online resource "Living With Black Bears" outlines what can attract bears to a property and what steps Vermonters can take to avoid those occurrences.

"Probably the most common incident that people have with black bears this time of year is bears coming and taking down their bird feeders, and also getting into garbage on their property," Hammond says.

Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department advises that bird feeders should be taken down prior to April 1, and not go up again until December.

"People like to feed the birds so it's really natural for them to do that, but it's pretty detrimental for the bears," Hammond says. "It's a huge attractant to bears at a time of year where their natural foods are in short supply – they're pretty much living off grasses and leaves right now – and so to be able to smell something like black oil sunflower seeds and a block of bird suet is really attractive to the bears. And we almost look at it as ... kind of like a gateway drug into a bear getting into trouble with people."

Hammond says awareness is key to avoiding negative bear encounters. He says you should know if your neighbors have spotted bears in the area, and also to take stock of your property and possible attractants – such as pet food that's been left outside or garbage that isn't secured or, again, bird feeders.

"Bears are all about food. If they're not going to be able to get any food in your backyard, they won't keep coming." – Forrest Hammond, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

"The big thing again is to take down your bird feeders and clean up even the old shells and stuff underneath – anything that would give any kind of odor out," Hammond says. "Bears are all about food. If they're not going to be able to get any food in your backyard, they won't keep coming."

A bear's sense of smell is strong, "about seven times that of a bloodhound," Hammond explains. "And so they can smell birdseed and things in your backyard from a long ways away."

If a bear does come in your backyard, the department says you should not approach it. Hammond does though advise having a plan to disrupt a bear visiting your property.

"If a bear shows up in your backyard, think about what you can do to give it a negative experience," he says. "It's as simple as opening the door or window and hollering at the bear and telling him that he's not wanted. Or banging some pans together or letting off an air horn or even firing paintballs at it or something like that – something to give it a negative experience, that he's not wanted in that area."

Creating this memorable negative experience helps to keep bears wary of humans, Hammond explains.

"If the first time a young bear comes close to your backyard looking for an easy meal, and it knows people are nearby but they make no threatening gestures and they don't do anything to prevent the bear from getting anything, then they just naturally think that they've got the upper hand and they'll keep coming back and lose more and more of their natural wariness," Hammond explains.

Update 2:07 p.m. 5/23/2017: The copy of this post was expanded after its initial publication to include information from the interview audio above.

Broadcast live during the noon hour on Monday, May 22, 2017; rebroadcast during the 7 p.m. hour.