Jaclyn Comeau: Black bear conservation depends on accurate information

This commentary is by Jaclyn Comeau, a wildlife biologist and the black bear project leader at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.

The April 20 commentary “Black bears are an asset to Vermont landscapes and public health” gets many things right. Black bears are valued members of our ecosystem, and coexisting with them requires that we adapt our behaviors to avoid putting bears at risk. 

But the commentary also spreads two points of misinformation about bear management in Vermont that I worry may undermine conservation efforts. 

First, the commentary severely misrepresents the types and frequency of human-bear interactions in Vermont that place bears and people at risk. 

This is evident from the author’s opening description of getting a boost of dopamine while watching a mother bear tending to her cubs from a kitchen window. As a wildlife biologist, my heart sinks when I read this scenario. A mother bear who is comfortable nurturing her cubs with onlooking people nearby has learned to see backyards as a reliable and safe place to find food. 

Spending time in human-dominated landscapes puts bears at risk, whether through ingesting harmful garbage, making dangerous road crossings, or creating conflicts with people over defense of property. These behaviors can also erode public tolerance for living alongside bears — as found by research conducted in the Adirondacks. 

Unfortunately, this is becoming all too common in Vermont. Over the past decade, Vermont has seen incidents with bears jump from an average of 230 to 750 annual reports.

This is why it is critical that we all take steps to help keep bears wild. 

The commentary underplays this very real challenge by incorrectly citing data attributed to our 2021 bear incident reports. It claims that 88% of bear incidents reported to the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department in 2021 were sightings only. In fact, only 15% of reported bear incidents in 2021 were simply sightings, the majority of which occurred in yards. 

The remaining 85% involved bears clearly engaged in behaviors that placed bears and people at risk, such as seeking food from human attractants like birdfeeders or unsecured garbage. The number of bears reported causing damage and being killed by means other than hunting in Vermont has increased 20- to 30-fold since the 1990s. 

Misrepresenting this trend undermines the commentary’s own call for Vermonters to adapt their behavior to better coexist with bears — a call that I support wholeheartedly. 

Second, the commentary raises concern that Vermont’s bear population is threatened by unsustainable levels of hunting. But this concern is not supported by the data. 

Vermont’s bear population grew during the 1970s through the early 2000s in the presence of bear hunting and has stabilized over the past decade. Vermont is currently home to 4,600 to 5,780 bears statewide. We know this because of the age and sex data submitted by hunters from bears harvested in Vermont, which we use to estimate the overall trajectory of Vermont’s bear population. 

This approach is commonly used to monitor bear populations and was found to be effective in a New Hampshire study when compared to other population estimates. 

Since 2019, Vermont has seen the three-year average bear harvest jump from 668 to 837. These recent harvests represent a three-year average of 14% to 18% of the estimated population during that period, which is comparable to harvests in most Eastern states. The department has not detected a corresponding decrease in the bear population.

But this is something we watch closely — in three-year increments because natural variability makes a single year an inadequate measure of population health — as part of our adaptive management strategy to maintain a stable bear population. 

The commentary also claims that the ratio of female bears killed by hunters is unsustainable. In 2021, 42% of bears harvested were female. The department tracks this number because, as the commentary points out, bears exhibit relatively slow reproductive rates. Our data show that bear populations can persist and grow with this harvest sex ratio. In fact, the average percent of females in Vermont’s bear harvest since the department began tracking this figure in 1963 is 42%. 

To sustain a stable bear population and promote coexistence between people and bears, the department needs to hear about Vermonters’ bear encounters in human-dominated landscapes. 

This means working with hunters to continue monitoring the trajectory of Vermont’s bear population by collecting biological data from harvested bears. It also means asking the public to submit reports of encounters with bears in human-dominated landscapes through our website or by contacting their local game warden. This community reporting model is widely used by fish and wildlife agencies in every eastern jurisdiction in North America to understand trends in human-wildlife interactions. 

In Vermont, these reports are essential for our ability to track statewide trends in bear activity and target outreach and interventions that help Vermonters take steps to improve our coexistence with bears.

In the face of climate change, habitat loss, and increasing human encroachment into Vermont’s wild spaces, it is critical we all work together for the conservation of bears and their habitats. A statewide survey confirms most Vermonters value bears as a part of our ecosystem. And an important part of conserving them is making sure that accurate information guides our efforts. 

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