Susette looks for ways to use her extensive spiritual, political, and practical experience to benefit people, wildlife, and the environment.
Most humans notice how we're pushing wild animals back into smaller and smaller territories, where they starve to death or run out of room to bear their young. Most of us also don't want to see bears driven extinct, so we're willing to do what we can to help them . as long as we don't get hurt in the process or inadvertently encourage them to stay forever. And that's the risk—safe or not safe in our neighborhoods? Can we afford to share with black bears?
Last fall I told my student aide the story of bears a friend had caught on his night camera the week before. We were driving a yellow school van along a narrow, winding road on the way to her place on top of a wooded hill. She was last to be dropped off.
A few months before, I'd noticed three deer on my return to the bus yard, so I asked if she'd seen any more wildlife lately. She told me deer was all she'd ever seen, and they didn't come around often.
My friend, Bruce, who lives a couple of hills over from her, is an apiarist. This means he cultivates bees and collects and sells their honey. To protect his hives and also to see what comes around at night, he's installed an infrared camera in his backyard. He's posted several night videos of bears wandering through, looking for food, and playing in his watering holes.
As my aide and I talked, I rounded a curve and automatically braked when I saw a quick movement on the left. Was it a deer? No, a bear! A small one crouching by the side of the road, clearly about to cross. “Oh look!” I cried as I slowed to a stop.
I opened my window and called soothingly, “Hey you. How're you doin'?” Nose up in the air, the little black bear moved its head side to side, smelling the bus and registering my voice. Forgetting I was in the middle of the road, I struck up a one-sided conversation, happy to be seeing my first wild bear.
In spite of three years living in Africa seeing all kinds of wildlife, and five years living in Oregon where loggers had driven bears away, this was my first ever sighting of bears in the wild. When my aide reminded me a car could drive around the corner and hit us, I reluctantly drove on, curious and amused at the slight shake in her voice.
The Origin of Southern California's Black Bears
Black bears are not native to Southern California—this being historically grizzly territory. Normally, black bears roam more remote, forested areas than grizzlies, but have lost nearly 60% of their territory, due to human encroachment.
In Southern California, grizzlies lived by the coast and in mountain riparian areas (near fishing streams), until hunters and farmers shot them all for preying on their sheep and goats. After grizzlies disappeared, it was 77 years before Southern California saw bears again.
In 1993 the California Fish & Game Commission caught 27 black bears in Yosemite Park in Northern California and transported them down to Big Bear Lake in the San Gabriel Mountains. They anticipated that black bears would both benefit the ecosystem and boost tourism. Because of the lingering reputation of grizzlies, however, owners of tourist lodges were terrified at first and shot the bears illegally to “protect” visitors and food in outdoor refrigerators.
Now about 4,000 black bears live in Central and Southern California, according to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife—all descended from those first 27.
How to Recognize Black Bears—Their Size and Color
American black bears are smaller than grizzlies—four to seven feet long (or tall, if they're standing) and just two to three feet high when on all fours. A typical female weighs around 300 pounds, a typical male around 500 pounds when food is readily available.
The coat of a black bear is shaggy and thick, usually colored black but also dark brown, cinnamon, or yellow-brown, sometimes with white markings. (Spirit Bears are a subspecies of black bear that is creamy white, and lives along the Canadian coast of British Columbia.)
Black bears have strong powerful legs with large paws, and are expert tree climbers and fast runners—they can run up to 35 miles per hour. Normally they live fairly aloof from humans.
Activity and Diet of Black Bears in the Wild
Black bears live up to 30 years in the wild, mostly in remote conifer forests in the mountains. Just before sunrise, they leave their dens to go foraging all day, taking a nap or two in the process. An hour or two after sunset they bed down for the night.
Black bears have a good memory and excellent sense of smell that help them find food and assess the mood of any predator they come across. Occasionally they will eat fish, small mammals, insects, and carrion. But 95% of their diet is plant-based, wild vegetation that includes herbs, grasses, roots, buds, shoots, honey, nuts, fruit, berries, and seeds.
Every fall, bears go on a marathon forage binge, storing up fat for hibernating during the freezing winter. In winter they go to sleep—in dens built in dark, safe areas like caves, culverts, or cavities dug from the undersides of downed logs—and don't wake up until spring.
Bears benefit nature, in the process of daily living, in three main ways: by spreading seeds far and wide via their feces, by opening up forest canopies so sunlight can reach the ground, and by helping to kickstart the decomposition of old trees, as they tear them apart to find grubs. Their only predators are mountain lions, wolves, brown bears, and humans.
To find out more about what bears eat and how they behave in the wild, check out this U.S. Forest Service brochure.
Encroaching on the Territory of Humans
Since black bears are the relative newcomers in Southern California, humans cannot be said to have encroached on their territory, as usually happens in other regions.
When times get tough in the mountains though—during droughts and wildfires—black bears will move into human territory, if it's the only way they can find food and shelter. Then they forage at night. Because they are normally wary of humans, as soon as they can they return to a place in the mountains that's safer.
The Legality of Hunting Bears
In residential areas, hunting bears is illegal. If bears need to be removed, the Department of Fish & Wildlife will do it using noisemakers, flashbangs and, if necessary, stun guns followed by transporting them back into the wild.
There's a myth that says hunting means fewer bears bothering humans but, in reality, hunters go into the wilderness to take out bears, which are not the same bears that find easy pickings among humans.
There's another myth that hunting bears is a way to keep their numbers down, but that's not true either. Bears are self-regulating producers. When hunters take out a bear, it leaves more food available, which allows females to have more cubs.
Bear hunting season is only three months out of the year. You have to purchase a license, cannot use dogs, and can only shoot one bear per season. Cubs and mothers with cubs are illegal. For more information, check out California's Big Game Hunting Digest.
The Need to Share Territory
California's most recent drought, and now the wildfires, have driven coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, and bears down into foothill neighborhoods. Because these conditions are so often caused or exacerbated by humans, we need to learn to share territory with bears and other wildlife that have lost theirs.
Black bears don't bring disease and they don't normally attack animals. They're just desperate for food and water, so I believe we can and should do what we can to help during tough times.
Black Bears in Foothill Communities
Where I live in Southern California, bears visit neighborhoods like Tujunga, La Crescenta, Altadena, East Pasadena, Sierra Madre, Arcadia, and Monrovia—all the foothill communities up and down the San Gabriel Mountains. I've seen photos and videos of them, and Next Door apps report bear sightings every week.
I first became aware of bears in Altadena when I woke up one morning to see garbage on the ground and our garbage can tipped over. Annoyed, I stood the can up, picked up the trash, then discussed it with my landlady in the front house.
A week or so later, I was getting ready for bed when the phone rang. I stalked over to my landline and saw that it was my landlady. Worried about an emergency, I picked it up and asked, “Are you ok? It's 11:00 at night!”
“I know,” she replied, “but I think you'll want to hear this.” She told me there was a bear in our yard. It had just foraged in the trash can, pooped under the grapefruit tree, then ambled up the drive to lie down under the Monterey pine, not 15 feet from my front door.
I hung up and rushed to the window. I could see a black blob . I thought . but I wanted to make sure. I raced to the back patio door and slipped outside, tiptoed across the grass, then laughed to myself, knowing full well the bear could hear every sound. I peeked around the corner and, sure enough, she was lying there, head up, staring straight at me.
“Oh hi,” I said, “just wanted to make sure you were real.” Then I slipped back inside the house, logged onto Facebook to tell everyone, and went to bed laughing.
The next day we talked about how to prevent bears from rooting through our trash. I guessed they could smell the garbage, so it should work for her to rinse off all food and food wrappings before tossing it into the trash—which I was already doing for insect control. She did and it worked.
How Humans Can Help Black Bears
Because black bears don't normally like being around humans, they either have to be starving in order to come down, or they're sick or wounded and have found easy food where human's live—like pet food on back porches.
Officials normally recommend that you not feed bears or let them get too comfortable around your house, partly because they go crazy for food in fall—eating an average of 20,000 calories per day. But that doesn't apply in the southwestern U.S, where winters are mild and food is available year-round.
How can we provide for them when there's nothing in the mountains? And how can we do it without endangering ourselves?
In my mind, there is something to be said for cultivating the hills above a community to provide an alternate source of food and shelter for bears. Since they like to shelter and raise their young in cave-like spaces, culverts and downed trees could be installed in the hills.
A wildlife community group could plant (and cultivate) trees, berry bushes, open hives, and other food sources in the foothills. Eventually, it would become a great place for humans to hike too.
Because bears establish territories, if a few black bears were to claim that land, they would prevent more bears from coming through to the human habitation, thereby becoming protectors for foothill neighborhoods. Humans could continue to live their noisy lives beneath the bears' quiet sanctuary, and bears would still have the upper mountains to retreat to when the foothills get too noisy or hot and food is available there again.
Such an endeavor would be time-consuming and expensive (at first), would prevent humans from spreading further (probably a good thing), and would cost a lot to water the plants until they're established. A cheaper, but less effective, alternative might be to:
- Set up a neighborhood park to support wildlife when times are tough. Include food and water (no shelter), and a safe pathway between the mountains and the park.
- Plant the city parkways up each street with bear-friendly trees. Make it harder for bears to enter people's yards.
- Block off all culverts and ravines running through the town. Even with food and water available in the neighborhood, bears should go back to the hills to find shelter.
Bear Interactions, Danger, and Safety
The last question remaining is how can humans keep themselves safe from attacks by bears if it's illegal to shoot them? Sometimes bear “attacks” are actually provoked by humans, without realizing it, so learning to understand bears and the signals they give off would be a good start. Here's how they react to each other:
- Coming face to face they stop and check each other out—looking, smelling (from a distance), listening. They have grunts and snuffles that tell each other why they're there.
- If one bear feels threatened, it will rear up and bluff, then walk away.
- A black bear will fight only if it sees no other choice—either to protect itself or its cubs. If dogs attack, it will fight.
Many Native American tribes have seen bears as human counterparts in the animal kingdom. Could it be that bears “see” us that way too—as a different type of bear? If so, it would make sense for humans to adopt a few of their signals in areas where bears are anticipated.
Here are a few things a person could do when a bear is approaching. You could prepare ahead by watching videos and practicing moves with the kids:
- If you round a corner and find a bear there, back off and stand your ground. That will tell the bear you don't intend to hurt it, but you're not going to run scared either. If the bear makes a clicking sound with its jaw, that means you're still too close.
- Face off with the bear. Expand the space you take up—open and spread your coat or sweater, widen, and solidify your stance. Huff noisily (repeated noisy breaths out).
- Wait a bit, then talk to it with a friendly voice, “Hey dude, what's up?”
- If it comes closer and you don't want it to, give a warning growl. It may test you—bear comes closer (you growl), bear steps back (you talk friendly).
- If it keeps coming closer yet, command the bear in a strong voice, “Hey! You go!” and point away. In 95% of the cases, they'll amble off.
- The next step is throwing things, then pepper or bear spray, but those shouldn't be needed.
I did see a video recently where a bear curiously approached a female hiker to smell her hair. She faced him and stood still, letting him sniff. Then he went away a few yards and came back, again to sniff. I thought at first she must have used a shampoo he liked, but then he sniffed other places—her neck, underarms, behind the knees—and it began to look like it was her perfume. So, if you're going hiking, don't wear perfume.
Bears prowl all over, including people's backyards, so don't go to sleep in your yard, when you know there are bears around. They may think you're fresh-dead meat that it's ok to eat, especially if you smell like it in the sun. Or they may think you're a young cub that needs to be cuffed and moved out of the sun.
In the very rare case that a black bear does attack you, fight back. Playing dead will only make it worse.
How to Deter Bears
If you don't want bears around, then don't provide for them, even accidentally:
- Move your trash cans inside the garage or gate and close it at night.
- Keep your barbecue grill free of drippings (i.e. clean it).
- Feed your pets inside the house when bears are around, not outside.
- If you have bird feeders, set them up away from your house.
- Cover or lock up anything that smells interesting.
- If you have an outdoor refrigerator, make sure all the seals are tight and the door can't be opened.
- Block the crawl space under the house, so bears can't use it as a shelter.
- Ask the county to fasten big metal screens over each end of big culverts nearby.
If a bear comes around anyway, look to see what drew it and eliminate that. For me, it was the trash. For my neighbor, it was the food she was putting out for the coyotes. The Department of Fish & Wildlife has several suggestions for bear-proofing your home or campsite.
Note: These steps should keep bears away from your house, but they will not do anything to help bears through tough times.
How to Handle "Nuisance" Bears
Those bears it's important to be most cautious about are those that have a reputation for causing problems. They're usually young males just entering their prime or females with young cubs. These bears need to be reported to the authorities, who will trap or tranquilize them, then carry them back to the hills to a place that makes it difficult for them to return.
When reporting a nuisance bear, there are several key questions to which the authorities need answers, so most state Departments of Fish & Wildlife provide an online form to fill out. California's is here.
If a bear is actively attacking someone, do what you do with any other emergency and call 911. The following video shows how removal is carried out.
I know “my” bear is still around. Last week my trash can was tipped over again, although it's been awhile, and every once in awhile I see bear scat on the road.
This month the Bobcat Fire, just over the ridge from my neighborhood, burned over 115,000 acres in the mountains, from one side to the other. I'm expecting more bear sightings and am putting water out for them, and throwing out leftover salad and vegetable material, in case they need it—which I know is not recommended, but it's also temporary. For a sympathetic, practical look at bears check out the Bear Smart Society. They have lots of good advice.
Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on October 15, 2020:
Bird feeders and berry patches both. Awesome, Mary!
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 15, 2020:
We have bears in the area around our cottage so I have seen them several times. One summer, they prowled around for food as they did not have enough in the forests around. They went to our bird feeders. Since we changed our garbage to a strong metal one, we never had problems with bears. We usually leave the berry patches around for them.
Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on October 13, 2020:
Thanks Mr. Happy. I love your comments and your articles (yes, I've read some, as you know). May Wakan Tanka be with you too.
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on October 13, 2020:
"who lives a couple of hills over from her" - "a couple of hills over", haha!! That's awesome! That's how I like my directions: head down the road, make a right after the second bridge and head straight until You see the big oak on your left ...". I prefer this rather than listening to road names which I will never remember.
"Because of the reputation of grizzlies, however, owners of tourist lodges were still terrified at first" - Grizzlies are just big brown bears. I do not find them scarier than black bears. Yes, they are bigger but they are still just as scared of humans. We are not on the bear menu so, unless we startle them, or approach the cubs, it's all good. (We are on the polar bear menu, so that's the only kind of bear that I would be truly concerned about.)
"In the process of daily living, black bears benefit nature by spreading seeds far and wide via their feces" - This will certainly gross some people out but the black bear's digestive system is not that efficient. One can find full berries in a bear's scat. (I speak from experience here lol) Thus, it can be food if starvation is on the horizon and that is all one finds.
"I believe we can and should do what we can to help during tough times" - I am with You 100%.
"Where I live in Southern California, bears visit neighborhoods like Tujunga, La Crescenta, Altadena, East Pasadena, Sierra Madre, Arcadia and Monrovia" - I saw a big brown bear walking through a neighborhood in Monrovia this summer. He looked really old, tired and somewhat confused. I hear he was taken back to the forest, which I was and am grateful for.
"In my mind, there is something to be said for cultivating the hills above a community to provide an alternate source of food and shelter for bears" - That is an awesome idea!!
"Such an endeavor would be time consuming and expensive" - Start a gofundme page. I'll pitch in. Planting raspberry bushes, or blackberries would work great because they will spread on their own.
"don't go to sleep in your yard, when you know there are bears around" - My sister fell asleep on the beach at Killbear Provincial Park, here in Ontario, only to wake-up with a black bear sniffing her head LOL She lived. Haha!!
I once forgot to wash my pan from breakfast and left it on the floor of the car. I woke-up in my tent (next to the car) in the middle of the night, with a bear sniffing around my tent. He tried to get in the car but he couldn't so, he moved on but ya, do not leave any food, any smell of food, food wrapping, or anything like that. They love everything we eat, including chips, chocolate bars, fruits, etc.
Ohha ya, that's the bear I saw in your last clip, from Monrovia! Until I saw the video, I did not know bears come that close to people's homes in California.
"throwing out leftover salad and vegetable material, in case they need it" - I leave left-overs in the forest too but I do a good walk away from where I am camping and then I put the food down. I always go and check in the morning and am always happy to see that the food is gone. As long as my animal cousins are eating, I am happy.
I love your article and thank You so very much for writing it. Here in Ontario, the Ojibwe First Nations call bears: Makwa and they are in their view (and mine) the protectors of the Forest.
Thanks again. May Wakan Tanka guide your path.
How can you tell if bears have been frequenting the area? They leave many signs behind. Learning to look for the signs of bears can also alert you potential problems before they occur, especially if the signs are fresh. You should also learn to tell the difference between black and grizzly bears from a distance. Click here to learn more
Tracks are one key indicator of bears. Black and grizzly bears also have very different tracks. The most important difference in the two bears feet are in the length of the claws. Black bears have shorter claws, while the long claws of a grizzly can extend up to 10 cm (3.9 in). When identifying tracks, there are numerous characteristics to look for. While claw length can help identify those tracks with clear imprints, there are two more reliable indicators of species. Black bear tracks tend to have the toes slightly separated, whereas grizzly tracks show toes that are usually joined together. Also, the arc of the toes is greater in black bears. To illustrate this, place one end of a straight edge at the base of the big toe, and line the straight edge with the front of the foot pad. If the other end of the ruler passes through the baby toe between the middle and the base, the tracks belong to a grizzly. If instead, the ruler runs through the smallest toe between the middle and the tip, then you have black bear tracks.
Bear scat is another good indicator of bear activity. It is a good practice not to touch scat with your hands while examining it. Don't spend a lot of time trying to differentiate between black bear and grizzly scat as the two are even difficult to tell apart in the lab. Historically, biologists have used a simple estimate that scats in excess of 5 cm (2 in) in diametre generally belong to grizzlies. Unfortunately, during research conducted by Stephen Herrero, 58 percent of grizzly scats were actually smaller than 5 cm in diametre, thus proving this rule inaccurate. The scat varies quite dramatically based on what the bear is eating at a particular time of year. During August, when the bears are fattening up on buffaloberries, the scat takes on a blackish-red appearance with plenty of buffaloberry seeds visible. If a cursory examination shows the remains of roots, or tubers, the scat likely belongs to a grizzly since black bears lack the claws to reliably dig up these plants.
Bears may feed upon a large carcass for several weeks, and surprising a bear at this time can be very dangerous. Stephen Herrero suggests learning to identify scat of bears that have been feeding on meat so that you can use this as a sign to leave the area, or at least to be very vigilant. When bears are feeding on meat, the scat is usually black and runny. Their may be some hair visible. While scat made up of plant material may also be black, it is usually more fibrous in nature. Also, scat made up of meat remains tends to smell whereas plant scat does not. Examining the scat can tell you how fresh it is. For instance, have insects colonized it yet? Are the plants underneath the scat still fresh and green or have they yellowed? If the scat is heavily concentrated within a small area, you may have also located a bedding down area. While most are used only briefly, check for other signs of bears such as hair or hollow scrapes on the ground. If you find evidence of garbage in the scat, you may have a habituated bear in the area and you may want to move on.
In spring and fall, grizzly bears actively dig up roots, tubers, corms, bulbs and small animals such as ground squirrels. The first time you come across a grizzly dig, it is usually an amazing feeling. These diggings can be very extensive in nature, and may show evidence of repeated diggings. When you come across a dig site, you can tell how recent the dig is by looking at the dirt that has been excavated. If it has been deposited on top of local plants, check to see if they plants beneath the dirt are still alive. If they have been covered for some time, they may not look as healthy as the surrounding plants. Fresh digs indicate that a bear may still be in the area. You should also take note of what they have been digging. bulbs, roots or ground squirrels. If they were digging roots, look to see if the remaining exposed roots still look fresh or wilted. All of these things can help you estimate the length of time since the bear was at the site.
If you are hiking and notice an abundance of ravens or crows, you may be near a carcass. Since numerous bears may feed on a single carcass, this is another sign to leave the area immediately. You may even smell the carcass if the wind is blowing in your face. Grizzlies often bury a carcass to save it for later feeding. Again, this is a sure sign to head home.
Marking of Territories
Finally, bears often rub, bite or scrape trees as a way of marking their territory. Some trees will be repeatedly marked by the same bear, or by other bears in succession over the years. Black bears, are good climbers and often the claw marks may permanently scar the bark of aspen trees. Learn to watch for these marks and you'll amaze your friends.
Human built and hiker defined trails are often easy to follow. In the mountains, many traditional hiking routes are not formally recognized on maps, but have become easy to follow simply through repeated use over the years. Animals like bears also have traditional routes that they follow. If you are moving through dense bush, you may encounter one of these trails. The main difference between hiker defined trails and game (or bear) trails is in the height of the trail. If you suddenly find that you must crouch down low to make your way along a well defined route, you may be making your way along a bear trail. These tunnel-like trails are not a place that you will want to spend a significant amount of time as bears are known to regularly use them.
How to Help Black Bears in Your Neighborhood - pets
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Living with Black Bears
Tips for Living with Black Bears - There's No Free Lunch - Managing Food, Garbage, and Other Attractants (video)
Tips for Living with Black Bears - Share the Woods - How to React if You Encounter a Black Bear Outdoors (video)
Black Bear Webinar: Learn about black bears and black bear management with DEEP Wildlife Division Biologist Paul Rego.
Print or Download a "Be Bear Aware" Poster:
Black Bear Do's and Don'ts
Black bears are becoming increasingly common in Connecticut as the population continues to grow and expand. Reports of bear sightings, even in heavily populated residential areas, have been on the rise. The Wildlife Division has also seen an increase in the number of reported problems with black bears. The primary contributing factor to bear nuisance problems is the presence of easily-accessible food sources near homes and businesses. Fed bears can become habituated and lose their fear of humans. Bears should NEVER be fed, either intentionally or accidentally. Connecticut residents should take the following simple steps to avoid conflicts and problems with black bears:
BEARS NEAR YOUR HOME
Bears are attracted to garbage, pet food, compost piles, fruit trees, and birdfeeders.
DO remove birdfeeders and bird food from late March through November.
DO eliminate food attractants by placing garbage cans inside a garage or shed. Add ammonia to trash to make it unpalatable.
DO clean and store grills in a garage or shed after use. (Propane cylinders should be stored outside.)
DON'T feed bears. Bears that become accustomed to finding food near your home may become "problem" bears.
DON'T approach or try to get closer to a bear to get a photo or video.
DON'T leave pet food outside overnight.
DON'T add meat or sweets to a compost pile.
DON'T store leftover bird seed or recyclables in a porch or screened sunroom as bears can smell these items and will rip screens to get at them.
BEARS SEEN WHEN HIKING OR CAMPING
Bears in natural settings normally leave an area once they have sensed a human. If you see a bear, enjoy it from a distance. Aggression by bears towards humans is exceptionally rare.
DO make your presence known by making noise while hiking. Hike in groups. If you see a bear, make noise and wave your arms so the bear is aware of your presence.
DO keep dogs on a short leash and under control. A roaming dog might be perceived as a threat to a bear or its cubs.
DO back away slowly if you surprise a bear nearby.
DON'T approach or try to get close to a bear to get a photo or video.
DON'T run or climb a tree. If possible, wait in a vehicle or building until the bear leaves the area.
DO be offensive if the bear approaches you. Make more noise, wave your arms, and throw objects at the bear. Black bears rarely attack humans. If you are attacked, do not play dead. Fight back with anything available.
DON'T cook food near your tent or store food inside your tent. Instead, keep food in a secure vehicle or use rope to suspend it between two trees.
BEARS, LIVESTOCK, AND BEEHIVES
Bears occasionally attack livestock (chickens, goats, etc.) and damage beehives.
DO protect livestock with electric fencing and move livestock into barns at night if possible.
DO reinforce beehives to prevent them from being knocked over or protect them with electric fencing.
WHEN BEARS COME TO VISIT
If a bear is seen in your town or neighborhood, leave it alone. In most situations, if left alone and given an avenue for escape, the bear will usually wander back into more secluded areas. Keep dogs under control. Stay away from the bear and advise others to do the same. Do not approach the bear so as to take a photo or video. Often a bear will climb a tree to avoid people. A crowd of bystanders will only stress the bear and also add the risk that the bear will be chased into traffic or the crowd of people.
If a bear is in a densely populated area, contact the DEEP Wildlife Division (860-424-3011, Monday-Friday, 8:30 AM-4:30 PM) or DEEP Dispatch (860-424-3333, 24 hours) to report the sighting and obtain advice. The mere presence of a bear does not necessitate its removal. However, the department may attempt to remove bears from urban locations when there is little likelihood that they will leave on their own and when they are in positions where darting is feasible. The department attempts to monitor bear activity in developed areas in coordination with local public safety officials. Coordination and cooperation with officials on the scene and local police officials is a key, critical ingredient in educating the public and assuring a safe, desirable outcome in such a situation.
Black Bear Frequently Asked Questions
Where Are Black Bears Found in Connecticut?
Black bears occur throughout much of the state. In 2019, approximately 7,300 bear sightings from 150 of Connecticut’s 169 towns were reported to the DEEP Wildlife Division . Connecticut has a healthy and increasing bear population with the highest concentration in the northwest region of the state.
Why Are Bears in My Neighborhood?
Many homes are in or near bear habitat. The bear population is healthy and increasing in Connecticut and sightings have become more common. Bears spend time in neighborhoods because food sources are abundant and easy to access (birdfeeders, garbage, open compost, grills, etc.) They will readily use these food sources and revisit the same location over and over again. Bears that are attracted to human-associated food sources may lose their fear of people. Both you and your neighbors need to take steps to make yards and neighborhoods less attractive to bears, mainly by removing any food sources. Black Bear Do’s and Don’ts.
What Should I Do if I See a Black Bear in My Yard?
If you see a black bear in your yard, enjoy the sighting from a distance and report your sighting. However, be sure you are not doing anything to attract the bear to your yard. Attempt to scare the bear off by making noise, such as banging pots and pans, shouting or using an air horn or whistle. Once the bear has left the area, take a close look at your yard for potential bear food sources, such as birdfeeders, pet food, dirty barbecue grills, open compost, or trash, and REMOVE those food sources IMMEDIATELY. Bears have incredible long-term memory and will revisit places where they have found food, even months or years later. Bears that are frequently fed, either intentionally or unintentionally through birdfeeders or garbage, may become habituated and lose their fear of people. If a bear behaves in a way that is a threat to public safety, it may have to be euthanized by the department.
If you choose to put out bird feeders, do so in the winter months from December through late-March when bears are in their dens. Although most bears enter dens at some point, some can remain active for portions of or the entire winter season if food is available. It is important that you remove bird feeders at the first sign of bear activity.
If you live in an area with bears, it is best to avoid bird feeders altogether. Bears that find bird feeders will often repeatedly visit the site in search of food day after day and year after year. Bird feeders and other bird food will attract bears closer to homes and humans. When bears begin to use human-associated food sources, they will frequent residential areas, lose their fear of humans, and not flee when harassed. They can even cause damage by breaking into outbuildings and homes in search of food.
For those who enjoy watching birds, establish native plants in your yard and add water features to attract birds. These methods may increase bird diversity and prevent unnatural feeding of a variety of wildlife species. Learn how you can bring wildlife to your yard with native landscaping.
Is It Safe to Hike, Run, Bike, or Walk My Dog in the Woods?
Yes! It is safe to enjoy the outdoors regardless of what region of the state you live in or are visiting. If your dog is hiking with you, it is imperative that you keep the dog on a SHORT leash and DO NOT let it roam free – this is for the safety of your dog, yourself, and wildlife. When visiting areas where bears are more common, hike in groups and make your presence known by talking or singing. Keep small children close by and on trails. Although black bears have injured and even killed humans in North America, such cases are exceptionally rare. Always be aware of your surroundings and if you happen to encounter a bear, follow the advice offered in the next question.
What Should I Do if I Encounter a Bear While Out in the Woods or on a Trail?
Remain calm and observe the bear from a distance. Do not approach or try to get closer to a bear. If the bear is unaware of your presence, back away or make noise which will often cause the bear to flee. If the bear is aware of you and does not flee, talk to the bear in a calm voice and back away slowly. Never run or climb a tree. If the bear approaches, be offensive. Make more noise, wave your arms, and throw objects at the bear. Black bears rarely attack humans. However, if you are attacked, do not play dead. Fight back with anything available.
How Can I Protect Myself from Black Bears While Camping?
Keep your camp site clean! Pick up all garbage and food scraps and store them in wildlife resistant trash containers. Store food in double plastic bags or tightly sealed containers and keep it in your car if possible. Contained food can also be stored in a backpack and hung from a tree at least 10 feet above the ground and 4 feet from the tree trunk. Never store food in a tent. When camping, sleep at least 100 yards from your cooking area and food storage site. If this is not possible, take extra precautions to thoroughly clean and store away all cookware and pick up any food scraps.
A common misconception is that a tagged bear in Connecticut is a problem bear, and a bear with two ear tags was caught on two different occasions because it was causing problems. Actually, every bear receives two ear tags (one in each ear) the first time it is handled by DEEP, regardless of why it was tagged. Most tagged bears have not been caught as problem bears, but rather as part of a project to research the state’s bear population.
Ear tag color indicates the year the bear was tagged. For example, a bear with green tags was handled in 2019, and one with orange tags was handled in 2018, regardless of age, gender, or reason for tagging.
Each colored tag has a 3-digit number code. The last digit indicates the year, while the first 2 numbers indicate the sequence in which it was caught. For example, a bear with ear tag “03-6” would be the third bear handled in 2016, and a bear with ear tag “20-4” would be the twentieth bear handled in 2014.
Ear tags help biologists track bear movements and dispersal. Bears tagged in Connecticut have traveled as far as Vermont. Bears tagged in New York, Massachusetts, and even Pennsylvania have shown up in Connecticut. Ear tags can also help identify individual bears that have a repeated problem behavior.
A bear with a collar will also have ear tags. The collar helps biologists locate a bear and track its movements. Data collected from collars provide biologists with important information about the growth, movements, and health of Connecticut’s bear population.
Ear Tags Placed on Black Bears in Connecticut by Year and Color.
|Year||Tag Color||Year||Tag Color|
|2012||Blue||2002||Yellow and orange|
Why Can’t a Problem Bear Be Relocated?
Relocation of Bears in Connecticut: Although heavily forested, Connecticut is a highly developed state. No large areas without humans are available to relocate a problem bear. Relocated bears seldom remain where they are released. Bears, particularly males, have a large home range of 12 to 60 square miles and travel long distances. They have a strong homing instinct and may return to where they were caught or become a problem somewhere else.
Relocation of Bears to other States: Black bears cannot be relocated to other states, including larger western states like Montana or Colorado, because other states will not accept any bears, especially problem bears. States with growing or large bear populations have similar policies as Connecticut’s. Other state wildlife agencies would also euthanize an aggressive bear that is a public safety concern.
Relocation of Bears to Zoos or Sanctuaries: The Connecticut DEEP does not take wild animals that have become unresolvable human safety issues into captivity. It may be a feel-good solution for a problem bear to be moved to a zoo or sanctuary, but that is easy to say and hard to do. Black bears are not a high priority species for zoos or sanctuaries because they are so common. Zoos also do not have the capacity to take all problem bears that states deal with each year. Because black bears readily reproduce in captivity, there is no shortage of captive bears for zoos. Animals that are raised in captivity do well in captivity. It is difficult for a wild bear that roams in the forest for all its life to suddenly adapt to a small enclosure at a zoo or sanctuary. Even under the best circumstances at the best zoos, captivity cannot replicate a wild animal’s habitat.
What Is Aversive Conditioning and Why Is It Used for Bears?
Aversive conditioning is a technique that uses negative stimuli (i.e., shooting with rubber bullets or paintballs, pepper spray, loud noises, etc.) to cause pain, avoidance, or irritation in an animal engaged in an unwanted behavior. The bear learns to associate the undesirable behavior with a negative experience, and as a result, is more likely to avoid conflict in the future. Research on this technique has shown it has limited effectiveness, but may be valuable in providing a short-term solution to human-bear conflicts.
Do you need additional help and advice concerning nuisance wildlife? Check out www.wildlifehelp.org and select "Connecticut" as your state to get started. WildlifeHelp.org is supported by the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the Northeast Wildlife Damage Management Cooperative.
Content last updated on November 16, 2020.
Learn about black bears
Black bears in Massachusetts
Though Massachusetts is the third most densely-populated state in the country, black bears have been increasing in numbers and distribution since the 1970s. The statewide population of bears is estimated to be over 4,500 animals and is growing and expanding eastward. Black bears live and breed in Worcester County, northern Middlesex County, and west to the Berkshires. Bears, mostly young males and some breeding females, are living in other eastern Massachusetts communities along Route 495. Dispersing young bears and wandering males often find themselves east of Route 495.
Black bears are black overall with a brown muzzle and sometimes a white chest patch. Their feet are large and well-padded, with moderate-sized, curved claws. Male black bears generally range in weight from 130 to 600 pounds and females from 100 to 400 pounds.
Black bears have good eyesight and hearing. Their extraordinary sense of smell is used both to locate food and recognize potential danger. They are excellent climbers and use trees to rest, escape threats, and protect their young. Black bears mate between mid-June and mid-July. Depending on food availability and snow cover, bears will den between mid-November and early December and exit between early March and mid-April. Bears commonly den in brush piles, under fallen trees or jumbles of rocks, or in mountain laurel thickets. A litter of usually two or three cubs is born in the den in mid-to-late January and they remain with the sow (adult female) for about 17 months.
Food, habits, and habitat
Bears are omnivores, meaning they eat both vegetation and meat. In spring, bears feed on lush, green emerging plants and are often seen in wetlands. In summer, they take advantage of ripening berries and can often be found in thick regenerating forest stands where berries are often found. Ripened corn and stands of oak, beech, and hickory trees are favored foods in the fall. Bears also feed on grubs and insects, dead animals, and occasionally young deer. Bears will visit birdfeeders, orchards, and beehives. It is not unusual for bears to use residential areas, and they are often attracted to yards by bird feeders and unsecured trash. Bears have excellent long-term memory and can remember the location of food sources years after the first visit. Black bears are important and valuable mammals in Massachusetts. They are big game mammals for which regulated hunting seasons and a management program have been established.
Tips for residents
Bears that have been habituated (accustomed) and dependent on human-associated foods, such as bird seed, trash, and pet food, are likely to cause damage and become a nuisance. Removal of food sources and other attractants is key to preventing problems with bears.
Remove bird feeders
If you live in an area with bears, it is best to not set out bird feeders. In general, most bears are denned from mid-December through February. If you choose to put out bird feeders, doing so during this time may decrease the chance of a bear coming to your feeder. In mild winters, some bears may be active year-round. Bring in any feeders at the first sign of bear activity.
Put trash barrels out the morning of trash pickup, not the previous evening. Store all garbage in closed containers in a garage or outbuilding. Using double bags or sprinkling with ammonia will help reduce odors. If you compost, do not throw meat scraps, greasy, oily, or sweet materials in your compost pile. Businesses and campgrounds in bear country should invest in bear-proof dumpsters with a locking lid. Trash should always be placed inside the dumpster, and never left accessible to bears.
Remove other attractants
Always feed pets indoors. Clean greasy barbecues and grills after each use. Do not leave food scraps, grease containers, or spilled grease in your yard. PROTECT BEES AND CHICKENS: Use electric fencing to safeguard hives and coops. Electric fences are most effective when put up and continuously charged before the first damage occurs. Keep open, mowed areas on all sides of hives and coops and do not locate hives or coops in abandoned areas or close to brushy, overgrown areas.
If you see a bear in your neighborhood
A bear’s first response to something unusual is to leave. If a bear is feeding in an area where it doesn’t belong, such as your yard, on a porch, or in a dumpster, step outside, yell, and make lots of noise. The bear will usually leave—accompanied by its young. Habituated bears may ignore minor harassment. If you continue to see bears, check your property and remove any potential food sources.
In the woods
Black bears are usually wary of people. Normal trail noise will alert bears to your presence and they will often disappear before you see them. If you see a bear, it may not immediately recognize you as a human and may be curious until it scents you. Make the animal aware of your presence by clapping, talking, or making other sounds while slowly backing away. Do not approach bears or intrude between a female bear and her cubs. Keep dogs leashed and stay a respectful distance away.
If you are experiencing problems with black bears or have questions, contact your nearest Masswildlife office.
If you have recently seen a bear in Illinois, please report the sighting to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Reviewable evidence is very helpful during efforts to identify the animal and the location. Please provide any documentation, including original images of individual animals or tracks that you were able to obtain. When documenting tracks or other signs, be sure to photograph individual tracks as well as groups of tracks. Include in the image an object to aid in the determination of size including a ruler, tape measure, or common object of standard size (coin or paper money, business card, etc.). Also include images of the wider area where the tracks were found, including the tracks as well as local features that can be located if the tracks are destroyed.
An IDNR biologist will review the information provided and attempt to use it to confirm the species and location of the sighting.
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