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They're fun to look at, but officials say 'Don't feed the bears'

Bears, like this one found trying to dismantle a birdfeeder in the Lakes Region, are especially attracted to birdfeeders during the months of June and July before the berries ripen in the woods. Fish and Game advises people to remove the feeders from their yards by April 1 to prevent bears from being accustomed to finding food in residential areas. “A fed bear is a dead bear” is the motto they are trying to relay, as bears acclimated to humans can become a safety issue. Photo courtesy of Erin Connolly. (click for larger version)
August 11, 2010
LAKES REGION — Summer in New Hampshire means picnics, cook outs and camping, activities that can also generate tasty treats for some four-legged residents who, come June and July, are just dying for a tasty treat.

Bears pull these manmade snacks from garbage cans and other residential locations each summer as they await berries and other natural foods in the woods to ripen. The problem is that eating human food can actually jeopardize a bear's health.

New Hampshire Bear Project leader, biologist Andrew Timmins, said bears prefer high quality foods that help to fatten them up. In the hotter months the vegetation diet they ate all spring begins to harden and is not as attractive, forcing them to seek out alternative foods, which often times are part of their natural diet.

"About 90 percent of the complaints we receive are for bears getting into garbage and birdfeeders," Timmins said.

Birdseed is especially attractive to the creatures since it is more nutritious and helps them gain weight. Fish and Game recommends people cease feeding birds on April 1 when the birds have plenty of feed in the fields and woods. Bears will seek out feeders in the spring and summer months, often destroying them in the process of getting at the sunflower and other seeds.

Timmins said removing them is vital to keep bears from becoming accustomed to human food sources.

"A fed bear is a dead bear" has become the slogan around Fish and Game as bears become increasingly more brazen when they find ready-made meals in garbage cans and backyards. Timmins said officials are dealing with an ongoing situation in North Conway where a woman had been purposefully feeding bears in her yard. As a result a bear became brazen enough to actually enter her home on two occasions, prompting a call to wildlife specialists. The same bear, a sow (female) with cubs, has since created problems in eight other homes, even though the woman has stopped feeding them.

"What you do can affect your neighbors, too. Peer pressure in a neighborhood is important if someone sees people are leaving feeders or garbage around for the bears,'" said Timmins.

Feeding bears became illegal in the state in 2006. Since that time, towns have also drafted local legislation concerning bears. Lincoln was the first to enact a law against feeding bears and leaving garbage available for them. Timmins said his office sees fewer complaints in Lincoln as a result of this ordinance and now Gorham, Franconia and, most recently, Bethlehem have passed similar laws in their towns.

Timmins said garbage should not be left outside without being double bagged and placed in an airtight, lidded container. Dumpsters should have steel lids and locks to prevent bears from breaking into them. Another tip he offered was to pour ammonia into a garbage can.

"Once (he) burns his nose sniffing the ammonia it's not quite as attractive and he'll move on. You have to starve them out of an area," Timmins said.

Bears are timid by nature and would prefer the lower risk lifestyle of staying in the woods and eating what comes naturally to them as the seasons change. But, when food gets a little more scarce, they become willing to take the greater risk of going after an easy meal in residential areas.

When possible Fish and Game will remove a bear from an area where he has come to find easy food sources around homes. That is not always a good solution though, as bears have been known to travel many miles to return to places they have fed in the past.

"We moved one bear and her three cubs to Pittsburg and within two weeks she was back in Jefferson where we took her from," he said.

When the habit of seeking human food sources is too deeply ingrained, the bears often have to be killed. Fish and Game would prefer to leave bears to the hunters in September but cannot wait for that when safety becomes an issue.

Another residential attractant for bears is backyard chicken coops, said wildlife damage specialist Rob Calvert. Bears have recently begun targeting chicken coops, usually for the grain.

"And if a chicken goes past and a bear can grab that, they may decide that chicken was pretty tasty, too," Calvert said.

The typical plywood sidings of these coops is no match for a hungry bear who can pry a board off and get inside one they have had a taste.

"It's kind of a new trend we're starting to see. It used to be the old fox in the henhouse story but now it could just turn out to be a black bear instead," Calvert said.

Calvert recommends electric fencing to prevent a bear from entering a chicken coop. Since bears are prone to investigate with their mouths, one lick of the fencing, flavored with a little peanut bitter and grain, will let them know there is no easy meal to be found in that location.

Each year Calvert said the state typically receives 600-700 complaints about bears. He and Timmins agree 2010 is right on track with those statistics despite the fact that a warm month of May brought complaints a little sooner than normal.

Should anyone encounter a bear in their yard or while hiking or camping, Timmins advises they should remain calm and make a little noise.

"Air horns are good. Whistles and clapping or banging pots and pans may help if it's a noise the bear isn't used to. You can even throw rocks at them if you're at a safe distance. Just make them feel uncomfortable and they'll leave," he said.

Usually black bears are so timid that Timmins said in the wild people will usually only see their "back end" as they are moving away. The last report of a fatal attack in this state was in the late 1700s.

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