On September 13, 2023

The bear facts: people food is the problem

 

By Brenna Galdenzi 

Editor’s note: Brenna Galdenzi of Stowe is the president of Protect Our Wildlife.

It’s tempting to claim that bear populations are “exploding” in Vermont, but the uptick in bear sightings is largely due to the animals having learned, over time, that food is easily accessible in people’s trash cans, bird feeders, compost, etc. 

Bears are changing their home range, and mother bears have taught their young where to find easy pickings in neighborhoods. This knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. 

Bears actually have very low reproductive rates and undergo a unique reproductive process called delayed implantation. They don’t become sexually mature until about 3 or 4 years old and females give birth every other year. Cubs stay with their mother for about 16-17 months. 

Despite the recent research that reveals that hunting and killing bears does not reduce future human/bear conflicts, Vermont has one of the longest bear hunting seasons in the country, including the use of hounds.

The official bear hunting season starts on Sept. 1 and runs through the day before the November regular deer season. In addition to the official hunting season, many people are surprised to learn that bears are terrorized by packs of hunting hounds for most of the year, beginning on June 1 — the start of bear hound “training” season, which runs right through the start of hunting season. 

Bear cubs are very small this time of year and are especially vulnerable, especially when they’re separated from their mothers by the hounds. The only difference between the bear hunting and training season is that bears may not be shot and killed during the training season. 

Approximately 20% of Vermont’s bear population has been hunted and killed over the last couple of years. That does not include bears killed outside of the legal season for causing problems with landowners or bears that were mortally injured by hunters and not recovered (which is not uncommon when hunting bears). 

This is from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife website: “If you make a poor shot, a wounded bear can run for considerable distances before dying. Heavy bones, hides, and fat layers may prevent quick-clotting blood from dripping and leaving a good trail, making an injured bear hard to track.” 

A bear was spotted a few years ago in Waterbury, with his/her jaw partially blown off, trying to eat apples under a tree. About half the bears killed each year are females, which means cubs are orphaned every year. Cubs themselves are also killed each hunting season (there’s no law prohibiting that). There is also no law prohibiting a hunter from killing a mother bear with cubs. 

After witnessing a sow with cubs shot and killed last season, a Fayston man presented a petition to Vermont Fish & Wildlife that would prohibit intentionally killing a mother bear with cubs. His petition was met with a lukewarm response by Fish & Wildlife, and it has yet to provide its position. We aren’t hopeful.  

Hound hunters (hounders) use powerful and tenacious breeds like Plott hounds who run miles away from the hounder as they pursue bears (and other wildlife, domestic animals, and people for that matter). Bears are often chased from the woods — where we want them — and into residential areas and roads, placing not only the animals in danger but also motorists. 

The hounders are often miles away from their hounds in their trucks, tracking the hounds’ location via handheld GPS devices. These uncontrolled hounds chase bears, sometimes for miles, across private property and into roads, until the desperate animal climbs a tree to escape, at which point the hunter shoots the bear from the tree. 

This violent hobby often results in hounds being injured in these dangerous pursuits as well.

The hounds also violate private property rights and cause disturbances with landowners every year in Vermont. A woman and her leashed puppy were attacked by hounds pursuing a bear on public land in Ripton a few years ago. The hounder didn’t show up to call the hounds off until about 30 minutes after the encounter. 

Posting your land against hunting — per Vermont’s onerous posting requirements — offers you the best legal protection against this unwanted activity on your private property. You can post “hunting by permission only” signs if you wish to have control over who gets to hunt on your land. Some of you might’ve already seen this encounter between a well-known hounder and a landowner in Peacham.

 The best thing we can do for bears (and humans) is not offer them food, which will encourage them to move along. We see bears every year on our security and trail cameras on our property and never once have the bears caused a problem. They never stay long. 

We are diligent about bringing garbage to the transfer station and don’t offer the bears any tempting food sources. Unlike grizzlies out West, black bears generally pose no threat to humans. They’re just trying to survive in a human-dominated landscape with houses being erected in travel corridors that they’ve traversed for years.

 

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