With its healthy forests and wetland areas that provide natural foods and shelter, western Massachusetts has a lot to offer black bears.
But when bears are intentionally, or unintentionally, lured out of these areas and into neighborhoods by the prospect of a meal, things can get hairy.
Drawn to bird feeders, backyard chicken coops, beehives and garbage, bears can cause property damage and other problems, leading to an excess of “problem bear” calls to police departments and an increase in collisions with vehicles, all of which create dangerous situations for residents and often lethal consequences for the bears involved.
According to wildlife officials, despite issuing constant warnings and educational materials on bears and how to prevent bear problems, many people do not take the proper precautions.
In some areas, it is even affecting the bears’ hibernation patterns.
“Unfortunately, in places like Northampton, people are providing so much food that some bears are not hibernating at all, or they are delaying hibernation,” said MassWildlife’s Black Bear and Furbearer Project Leader, Dave Wattles.
Bears are especially drawn to bird food in the winter, Wattles said, noting that “black oil sunflower seeds have over twice the caloric value of acorns, so they are getting really concentrated meals.”
Once a bear is successful in finding an easy meal provided by humans, it will habitually forage in neighborhoods for these foods and others, with mother bears teaching their offspring to do the same, thus continuing the cycle.
“Last year in Belchertown, a sow raided a chicken coop all winter,” Wattles said. “The two yearlings that were with her were shot and killed.”
Marion Larsen, chief of information and education with MassWildlife, said that poor years for acorns and beechnuts — natural bear food — combined with the availability of food provided by humans are solid indicators of future bear problems.
And backyard chicken coops could prove to be one of this year’s biggest lures as bears learn to become habitual raiders for eggs and chickens.
“Last year, we had a rash of calls about bears raiding chicken coops,” Larson said. “This year, we are expecting to see more bears turning to these sorts of foods that are associated with humans.”
As spring arrives and hungry black bears are coming out of hibernation, wildlife officials continue to provide the public with easy solutions to problems with bears — and they stress the importance of taking these actions.
Black bears are driven by two major factors: food and fear, according to MassWildlife. They are eating machines drawn to food that is easy to obtain, and they are naturally fearful of humans.
Problems arise when they have to weigh the choice between hunger and fear. Habituated bears have learned that great reward comes from overcoming their fear, and they can frequently become bolder and more insistent about obtaining a meal.
This means that one individual intentionally, or unintentionally, providing food for bears can effectively put an entire neighborhood at risk for bear activity.
“This is still our biggest message, and we can’t stress enough how important it is for people to take all of our warnings and information seriously,” Wattles said.