Is Suburban Boston the new buffet for black bears? – Dig Bos

As droughts and climate change impact their food supply, more furry friends are being spotted closer to Massachusetts towns

Yes, maybe it was a black bear you saw in the suburbs!

The 300-pound animals have been increasingly spotted east of I-495, even in urban areas, a result of a growing bear population combined with the impact of climate change cascading throughout the northeast.

Historically, Massachusetts had few black bears within its borders, largely due to rampant hunting and European settlers turning natural habitats into farmland. Over the past century, as wildlife conservation efforts were accompanied by the abandonment of agriculture and the industrial revolution, their numbers swelled to around 4,500 (mainly concentrated in the Berkshires, west of the Connecticut River).

Bears themselves can easily adapt to rising temperatures, said a researcher with MassWildlife, the state conservation agency. Yet, climate change may impact the availability of natural food sources in rural areas.

“Black bears are found in Florida, they are found in Louisiana. They can adapt to a wide range of climatic conditions,” said David Wattles, black bear biologist and researcher at MassWildlife. “Where a bear would be affected is if some of the plants in the northeast can’t handle the warmer temperatures.”

If the plants and berries they depend on for food can’t withstand the climate and long dry spells, Wattles added, the bears could move to other places, including urban areas, in search of food. food sources. And as climate change increases the frequency of severe droughts, they may step out of their usual comfort zone.

Over the summer, the northeast experienced one of the most severe droughts in years. Even now, there are critical drought conditions in most of the northeastern, central and western parts of the mass, according to the state’s drought management task force. Similar shortages occurred in 2016 and 2017.

Meanwhile, residents have reported sightings in Worcester, Lowell and Peobody so far this year, according to a database retained by UMass Amherst mass bear project, which compiles comment submissions from community members.

In 2021, MassBears reported two sightings of black bears in Waltham, alarmingly close to the metropolis of Cambridge. (Rumor was they were looking to enroll at Harvard; we tried to ask for comment, but the bears weren’t responding.)

Now, as summer turns to fall, black bears are preparing for their annual hibernation, boosting their caloric intake with a steady diet of berries, nuts, and roots throughout the fall. Once this period is over, after about seven months, they will return to foraging, but due to changes in temperature and weather conditions that affect plant growth rates, they may find less food available than last. once they have left their den.

“Bears, and every animal and ecosystem, really depend on all plants, be it berries, nuts, roots,” said Zac Watson, MassBears researcher and junior at UMass Amherst. “The reliability of these food sources is a bit of a question.”

With inconclusive data, it’s hard to say exactly how weather patterns and hibernation periods might change, said Elizabeth Zhang, researcher at MassBears and UMass Amherst junior. According to climate action tool MassWildlifea resource mapping how climate change may impact local wildlife, milder winters could reduce the duration of bear hibernation.

Increased bear activity combined with the potential for low food availability during the winter months may increase the potential for human-bear conflict, as bears are more likely to visit urbanized areas in search of food during shortages,” the entry on black bears reads.

In urban areas, food is generally more plentiful. Trash and leftovers left in front of houses make a full meal for a hungry bear.

“People really need to understand that if they have bird feeders, they’re basically causing bears to come into their yard, come onto their patio looking for food,” Wattles said. “If their trash is just left on the side of the garage, or left out for a week, or there’s an overflowing dumpster, that’s buffet for a bear.”

Bears are “opportunistic omnivores,” Zhang said. They are mostly harmless and will not actively hunt. Wave your arms and make a lot of noise and a black bear will often be scared and reserved.

At the same time, black bears won’t hesitate to crack a few eggs to make the proverbial omelette or eat the whole chicken. MassWildlife has reported an increase in the number of incidents in which black bears enter poultry houses and eat chickens. According to a statement agency, it is quickly becoming “the number one human bear conflict in Massachusetts”.

“It’s like a beautifully packaged, literally food source for them,” Watson said. “They can go in there and grab it. Chickens can’t really escape.

The state recommends that residents who raise chickens in their backyard install an electric fence. Given enough time and a few shocks, black bears may be shocked to stay away.

But currently, residents or travelers to eastern parts of the state who are unfamiliar with black bears often won’t know what to do when they spot one, Wattles said. Between MassWildlife, state environmental police, animal control and local law enforcement, authorities are receiving countless calls related to black bear sightings, Wattles said.

Photo via Mass Fauna

For their part, much of the work done by MassWildlife and Wattles centers on education, he said. The mere presence of a black bear is not a threat to public safety, unless backyard chickens count as the public. Most of the time, Wattles noted, the standard response to a black bear sighting report is to leave it alone.

“People are in conflict with the bear, they often ask us to move it and the answer to that is always Nope“Wattles said.

One of the few exceptions is if a bear is reported near traffic. If a bear is left alone downtown, Wattles said as an example, it could result in a collision with a vehicle. He estimated that 35 to 50 bears die each year en masse due to vehicle accidents.

Looking ahead, Zhang and Watson said policymakers need solid data on black bears in the state to make informed decisions. In the meantime, MassBears is creating a robust population density model, relying primarily on crowdsourced submissions from community members who can report sightings. on their website.

“Submissions allow us to really build these robust models that help us make very informed management-level decisions,” Zhang said.

Wattles urged residents to learn best practices for living with black bears, instead of blaming them for eating at the buffets they come across.

“People often think it’s bad bears going into a bird feeder or a chicken coop. It’s every bear,” Wattles said. “It is really up to individuals and communities to take this message seriously.

“We can really coexist peacefully with these animals.”

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