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Hearing the call of the not so wild

Black bears, growing in number, an increasing, unsettling suburban presence

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / August 21, 2011

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The black bear in Jeremy Griffin’s back yard in Spencer could not have been more at ease, eating from the birdfeeder with seeming nonchalance.

“He didn’t care that I was there,’’ Griffin said. “He ate out of that feeder like it was a Pez dispenser.’’

It was as if the town outside Worcester was home turf for bears. Increasingly, it is.

Forty years ago, black bears were nearly extinct in Massachusetts, pushed to the brink by aggressive hunting and the steady march of development.

Now the shambling omnivores are back in force, reaching population levels not seen in more than a century and ranging east to wooded towns where backyards can provide an abundant food supply.

“The population is growing steadily, and bears are moving into unoccupied range,’’ said Laura Hajduk, who heads the Black Bear Project for the state’s division of fisheries and wildlife. “If they happen upon a patch of woods where there’s available food and not much competition, they’ll stay put.’’

By best estimate, there are now about 5,000 black bears in the state, up two-thirds since 2005 and fivefold since the early 1990s. Most live west of the Connecticut River, where food and undeveloped woodlands are plentiful.

But, in greater numbers, they are venturing into the Worcester area and occasionally into more densely populated areas within Interstate 495. Bears are now breeding in Worcester and northern Middlesex counties, wildlife officials said.

As bears have ventured east, suburban development has pushed west, leading to a surge of sightings and nuisance complaints from suburban residents, startled to see the burly creatures munching on sunflower seeds at their birdfeeder or pawing through their garbage.

“The bear population is growing, and so is ours, and we are moving into areas that used to be more wild,’’ said Mark Pokras, a veterinarian at the wildlife clinic at Tufts University. “There’s pressure from both sides.’’

With the state’s bear population growing by roughly 10 percent each year, and hunters harvesting fewer than 150, public safety fears could grow and raise the prospect of more aggressive population controls.

In June and July, black bears were spotted in a string of towns in the southeastern part of the state, and an adventurous cub caused a stir when he roamed through the Wayland-Framingham area. In Attleboro, a young bear drew a large crowd when he clung to a tree behind a home for two hours before lumbering into the woods.

Suburban neighborhoods would seem a poor habitat for black bears, but bird feeders, pet bowls, and garbage cans often provide ready sustenance, far easier that foraging in the wild. Some families, to wildlife officials’ chagrin, even put out food for them.

“They can smell food from a good distance, and bird seed is very high-energy food,’’ Hajduk said. “They go to what’s easiest.’’

Bears also have good long-term memories and will remember where they have found food years after the first visit. As bears continue to find food in neighborhoods, they become more comfortable with their surroundings, and over time their fear of people wanes.

Mother bears are also teaching their cubs about human food sources, wildlife officials say.

“Your garbage cans - that’s what the young ones are going to learn,’’ Pokras said. “Where can I get my calories with the least amount of danger and the least amount of effort?’’

Bears, like raccoons and other omnivores, quickly become reliant on human food, and will become more aggressive in pursuing it.

That conditioning has led some bears, who typically try to avoid people, to grow more comfortable among them. Last month, David Russo of Princeton watched a bear break into a metal barrel that had a 40-pound bag of bird seed inside and knock down a feeder less than 10 feet from his back porch, all with two dogs barking frantically. After a few minutes, the bear took the bag into the woods behind the house and casually ate.

“He just went about his business,’’ Russo said.

Black bears are not aggressive and rarely harm people, wildlife officials said, but they can damage property in search of discarded food as they become more dependent on it. State wildlife officials urge residents to remove or secure any potential food sources.

Wildlife officials say that when bear cubs reach about 17 months they begin looking for new territory. Females tend to locate near their mothers, but males are hard-wired to move away to open territory.

“Young males can move 60 to 100 miles away,’’ Hajduk said. “It’s their first time on their own, and they are looking for a place to set up shop.’’

Jason Zimmer, who supervises the southeast district for the state division of fisheries and wildlife, said the cub who cut a swath across Southeastern Massachusetts in the late spring and summer made it as far east as Wareham.

“It’s a novelty right now,’’ he said. “But sightings are undoubtedly going to become more frequent.’’

Bears have a relatively long life span and high survival rate, with almost 90 percent of adult females surviving each year.

One reason is that bear hunting is sharply limited, with hunters allowed to kill just one per season, which covers 35 days split between September and November. The state prohibits trapping or baiting bears and has banned the use of dogs since 1996. Bear hunting is banned within Route 495.

Bears are also difficult prey. They have good eyesight and hearing and a keen sense of smell, and they blend into the background well. They can move quickly and are excellent climbers.

The number of permits to hunt bears has risen each year, with 7,000 issued last year. But the harvest peaked in 2009 with 168, and a recent state survey of bear hunters found that just 3 percent are successful.

“There’s not a huge amount of hunting pressure,’’ Zimmer said. If bear populations rise sharply in Eastern Massachusetts, hunting may eventually be expanded, he said.

In the early 1970s, there were just 100 black bears in Massachusetts. But tighter hunting restrictions helped the population rebound, and it has slowly increased ever since.

In New Jersey, officials expanded hunting last year to curb rising black bear populations in that state, over sharp opposition from hunting opponents. In the northwest part of the state, which borders New York and Pennsylvania, there are approximately 3,400 bears, the most per square mile in the country.

Many live near residential areas and have become increasingly aggressive in their search for food, said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the state’s department of environmental protection. In one instance, a bear crashed through a window and climbed into a home, then left with a bag of garbage. In another, a bear followed a woman into her house as she was unpacking groceries.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.