Typically, according to the state’s expert on black bears, Vermont records two to three incidents of bears breaking into houses per year.
This year? Residents are reporting two to three break-ins or attempted break-ins every week.
Jaclyn Comeau, a biologist who leads the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s Black Bear Project, said that Vermont’s black bears, attracted by people’s unsecured food sources, are growing “bolder” and approaching houses and cars more frequently.
That newfound fearlessness could be priming the state for one of its worst years for bear encounters in memory.
“The number one cause of this dangerous, escalating behavior is Vermonters failing to secure food sources that attract bears,” Comeau said in a press release on Tuesday. “This failure is putting people and bears in danger.”
Human-bear encounters have been on the rise for a decade, state officials said. In 2011, the state recorded 135 bear incident reports.
So far in 2022, state officials have recorded 700 reports of bear incidents, already outstripping last year’s total of 650.
Meanwhile, Vermont’s bear population has hovered between 4,500 and 6,500, Comeau said. But during that time, the animals’ range appears to have expanded: Bears are increasingly coming into urban areas and appearing more regularly in the Champlain Valley, where historically they were scarce.
Encounters appeared to have skyrocketed in 2020, according to Comeau. That year, 48 bears were killed “in response to high-risk behaviors like home entry, or livestock predation,” Comeau said.
“That was a pretty extreme year,” Comeau said. “And that was by far the highest number of reported bear conflicts we dealt with.”
Comeau attributed that spike to a number of factors. For one thing, people were spending more time at their houses during Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, presenting more opportunities for human-bear encounters at home.
People were also generating more garbage and food waste at home. And a new law banning food waste from garbage went into effect in July 2020, as well, leading to “a lot of growing pains” as residents began composting, Comeau said.
But 2022 is also shaping up to be a bad year for bears. The state is on track to report as many encounters as in 2020, Comeau said.
So far this year, 13 bears have been reported killed in high-risk situations. And that number is likely an undercount, she said, citing a delay in data reporting.
“We were all hoping that 2020 was an outlier because of the pandemic and all those factors,” she said. But “to be in mid July and to have already received over 700 bear reports of conflict situations — it certainly makes me worried that we're on track to see similar numbers.”
The increase in encounters is largely due to the animals learning over time that food is easily accessible in people’s garbage cans, garages and houses.
State officials are encouraging Vermonters to avoid attracting bears by making potential food sources inaccessible.
Those steps include making sure garbage cans are bear-proof, removing bird feeders and composting food scraps correctly. The state is also encouraging residents to protect livestock with electric fences.
“They're looking for high-calorie meals, and our garbage, our bird feeders, our livestock, our pet foods — those things are what they're seeking out when they come close to our houses,” Comeau said. “And if they aren't finding those foods, they're less likely to be spending so much time around us.”
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