by Nicole Rivard
Featured in Action Line magazine, available here.
Media reported record numbers of bears entering Connecticut homes in recent years, however the fear-mongering headlines don’t tell the whole story and that’s a disservice to bears and humans.
“Black bears aren’t breaking down doors to harm you, your children or your pets like in a horror movie. Black bears are opportunistic feeders looking for food,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “And they are being baited by people’s bird feeders and trash.”
Of the 3,507 black bear “damage” reports in 2020, 1,112 involved bird feeders and 1,356 involved trash cans. And most of the black bear home break-ins reported from April 1-Sept. 10, 2020, were bears responding to the scent of a food attractant, according to information FoA received through a Freedom of Information request.
Success in preventing human interactions with black bears depends on changing human behavior.
“A lot of what we are seeing is driven by habituation, and public education is critical in reversing that trend,” said Jenny Dickson, director, CT Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Wildlife Division.
Screened-in porches and open windows won’t prevent bears from smelling what’s on the menu at your house—they can smell food from more than two miles away. Putting trash out just before collection time, bringing bird feeders in from March through November and not feeding pets outdoors help keep bears out of trouble.
“’Nuisance bear’ is a term that needs to be wiped out of our wildlife management vocabulary,” said Rich Beausoleil, bear specialist for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in the Living with Bears Handbook. “
The educational value alone that would result from people realizing that conflicts with wildlife are almost entirely the result of human actions would justify any amount of work necessary to change our way of thinking and talking and managing.”
Irresponsible human behavior is deadly for black bears—three “nuisance bears” were killed in Connecticut in 2020 for entering homes, along with four others for “problematic” behavior.
Nationwide, thousands of “problem” bears are killed annually, according to Linda Masterson, author of Living with Bears and communications director for BearWise, an education program launched in 2018 by bear biologists from the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
BearWise helps communities apply common-sense practices such as using bear-resistant containers and not feeding wildlife.
Using a bear-resistant container is almost a sure-fire way to defeat determined bears, according to Masterson. They can range in size and typically start at $100.
“It’s a small investment compared to the price of replacing containers and cleaning up after a bear, week after week,” she writes. “It’s an even smaller investment compared to a bear’s life.”
The homeowners’ association of Hemlock Farms, a private residential community situated on 4,500 wooded acres in the foothills of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, uses bear-resistant trash containers at facilities and trailheads where people congregate and potentially have trash. As a result, bears are behaving like they should— moving around from dusk to dawn and not interacting with people, according to Kelly Elizabeth Stagen, president of the Hemlock Farms Conservancy.
As Hemlock expanded to 3,200 homes, some new members were not savvy about forest living, so the HOA also adopted an ordinance prohibiting the feeding of deer, bear or geese. The rule also requires residents to put trash in tightly sealed containers and out at the time of scheduled pickup. Fines are incurred for violations.
“We’ve worked really hard on educating people about not allowing their home to become a food source for wildlife. We teach them they modify the bear’s behavior because they haven’t modified their own,” Stagen said.
Stagen also helps people to think outside the bird feeder—planting native shrubs and flowers, adding a bird bath or providing nest boxes will attract birds but not bears. Black bears have become an icon for the community.
“It’s exciting when you see a female with her cubs or just that rambling male. They are beautiful creatures and generally very shy and reticent,” Stagen said.
After recording 817 bear-related incidents involving trash scattering and home/vehicle entries, in May 2010 the Durango, Colorado, City Council adopted a wildlife ordinance. In addition to addressing securing trash, it prohibits the feeding of wildlife with an exception for bird feeders.
The council updated the ordinance in 2018 after bears began entering dens later and emerging earlier due to climate change. Residents no longer get an initial warning if caught with trash tossed about by wildlife or leaving food outdoors—they receive a $100 ticket for the first offense and a $200 ticket for any additional finding that the can is not properly secured. They are required to upgrade to a wildlife resistant can if a non-resistant can version was accessed; this includes a $100 delivery fee, with an additional $4 per month until the $220 cost of the can is paid off. (The monthly rental of the can is $16.49 versus $12.25 for a non-resistant can.)
In 2013, with grant money from the State Parks and Wildlife Department, Durango distributed bear-resistant trash containers throughout two “treatment” areas, while monitoring two paired “control” areas. The experiment found a 60 percent reduction in scattering of trash by wildlife in the treated areas. And bear-related calls within Durango dropped to 497, a 61 percent reduction. The cans had to be unlocked the morning of pickup, thus compliance by homeowners was a mitigating factor. The city has since started distributing automatic bear-resistant trash cans to city residents living in other hot-spot areas.
Steve Barkley, the city’s code enforcement officer, points out that auto latches have reduced the human factor of giving wildlife access to trash and he continues to see reduced incidents.
“We are in the process of a complete changeover to wildlife resistant containers citywide,” Barkley said. “We expect to have 100 percent coverage by end of 2022. Push-back has been minimal from citizens and landlords.”
Between 2007 and 2019, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provided almost $2.1 million to offset the cost of bear-resistant containers in 16 counties with the highest levels of human-bear interactions in the state. Seminole County adopted its wildlife ordinance in 2016, requiring residents to secure refuse in a shed, garage or other secured structure on non-collection days, and not to place it curbside before 5 a.m. on collection days. A bear-resistant container has to be used if trash is put out earlier. Preliminary findings show a reduction of conflict calls by 38.6 percent.
SIGNS OF CHANGE IN CONNECTICUT
Last year, FoA helped form the CT Coalition to Protect Black Bears with some prominent animal and environmental organizations because of misleading information circulating about black bears, including that they need to be managed with a bear hunt. We educate the public and support using legislation to get residents to comply with BearWise strategies. (You can watch our first webinar here: https://youtu.be/30O7KQx8f0Y).
A statewide wildlife feeding ban has not yet passed, however the towns of Simsbury and Granby recently adopted their own. The ordinances prohibit bird feeders from April 1-Nov. 30 unless the source of food is Nyjer or thistle seeds that many birds like but that bears don’t have a taste for.
The impetus for Simsbury’s ordinance was a homeowner who was leaving dog food in her backyard to attract coyotes. That behavior contributed to the coyotes attacking a neighbor’s dog, and officials feared it would also attract hungry bears.
“It’s a tool that I am really glad we have,” said Eric Wellman, Simsbury’s first selectman. “It’s definitely solved some specific things in neighborhoods where people have been involved in really bad behaviors.”
Before his retirement in November, Warren first selectman Timothy Angevine encouraged residents to use bear-resistant trash containers. USA Waste & Recycling offers 95-gallon cans that can be rented for $10 a month. Getting some residents to make the cans a priority was challenging.
“Instead of spending $10 a month, I noticed a family had attached a board [to their trash can] with 100-plus sharp screws on top. It’s sad,” Angevine said. But he continued to advocate for bear-resistant containers.
“Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it’s always right,” writes Masterson.
What’s also sad is how another Connecticut resident was adamant that the bear who got into her basement through a screen door could not possibly smell the suet cakes stored in a plastic storage bin, so she refused to stop feeding birds.
That’s just the type of attitude that is setting up black bears up to get into trouble and why the state needs to pass a wildlife feeding ban.
The truth is some humans are simply unbearable. But thankfully, not all are, as those living in BearWise communities demonstrate.
“Ultimately, the essential and lasting solutions won’t come from management agencies, they will come from people,” Beausoleil said.