Justine Goldblatt: Coexistence between Vermonters and black bears is imperative

This commentary is by Justine Goldblatt, a resident of Burlington.

Seeing a mama black bear lead her three little cubs across a fallen log in the clearing ahead is a moment in which you feel such a connection with wildlife. The bear family accepts your presence there as a visitor, but sadly, humans are not as tolerant of bears. 

Black bears are crucial to Vermont for a variety of reasons. Not only are they majestic, intelligent creatures who provide immeasurable joy to photographers and wildlife enthusiasts, but they also play an important role in the dynamic web of Vermont’s ecosystem.

But black bears are in trouble. They face various threats — from the effects of climate change to cars to daily human activities. Some threats are difficult to mitigate (e.g., climate change) while others should be simpler — namely, humans changing our behavior. 

In recent years, the number of human and bear interactions has increased. Part of this is due to Fish & Game formalizing the online bear reporting a few years ago on its website. Bear incidents are also on the rise due to mandatory composting, people feeding birds year-round, more people keeping chickens, and people not practicing proper animal husbandry, just to name a few. 

What’s happened is that bears have learned over the years that they can find high-calorie, high-fat food in human-populated areas without much effort. Cubs spend almost two years with their mothers and during this time they are soaking up all of their mother’s knowledge, but also some of her bad habits.

While blaming the uptick in bear incidents on a higher bear population is an easy conclusion to make, it’s not accurate. I was happy to read that the Vermont Fish & Game bear biologist refuted claims that the bear population is increasing and instead attributed bear incidents to a change in bear behavior and range.

While I agree with Fish & Wildlife on a lot of things, we part ways when it comes to their support of bear hounding. Hounding involves packs of dogs that are unleashed into the woods and run uncontrolled for miles in pursuit of their prey. The hound hunters track the dogs with GPS devices. 

Hounding starts on June 1, when bear cubs are still learning how to climb trees and when mother bears should be able to nurse their young without being harassed. This activity lasts all summer long. Then, starting on Sept. 1, bear hounders can use their hounds to shoot bears dead from trees. 

What I cannot reconcile is that if we want bears to feel comfortable in the woods and not our backyards, then why does Fish & Wildlife allow this? This is an example of when politics rule wildlife regulations and the wildlife loses. 

If Vermonters work to become more conscious of the way their lifestyles impact bears, we can decrease the number of human-bear conflicts. This includes simple actions such as not leaving trash outside or bird feeders out all year long. Additionally, properly fence in chicken coops and crops. 

Black bears are a vital part of our ecosystem that deserve to be respected and protected. Vermonters must become more aware of how their actions increase interactions with these bears and make an effort to change.

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