Wake up call: As bears end hibernation, they'll wander in search of food
With the spring thaw right around the corner, New Hampshire wildlife officials are asking residents to take down their bird feeders by April 1 and take other measures to prevent hungry bears from munching too close to home.
According to New Hampshire Fish and Game bear biologist Andrew Timmins, who is based in Lancaster, some homeowners have already reported seeing bears in different areas around the state — from Goffstown to Meredith.
"We're starting to get some reports, not as much as we'd normally have this time of year because of the deep snow pack," said Timmins, adding his concern that with this long winter and late spring conditions, food won't be as plentiful once the bears come out of hibernation.
Timmins said the long winter should not impact bear reproduction rates, as the food supply — such as beechnuts, apples, mountain ash berries and choke cherries — was plentiful just before winter set in. "The issue will be when will the food be available this spring — that's the unknown.
"It could affect the survivorship of cubs, the fact that the bears have been denned up for so long now they've depleted their body fat," he added.
He said the rate of bear/human conflicts that could occur this spring and summer is unknown and difficult to predict, however.
According to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department advisory issued last week, residents should keep birdfeeders down from April 1 to Dec. 1.
A single food reward will cause a bear to return and continue to search the area for food. Homeowners are urged to clean up any stray bird seed, secure all garbage in airtight containers, lock dumpsters if you use one, avoid putting meat or other food scraps in outdoor compost piles, never leave pet food dishes outside overnight, and clean and store outdoor grills after each use.
"When bears emerge, they will be hungry and food will be limited until spring green-up occurs," the advisory stated. "We are hoping homeowners will be vigilant and remove/secure attractants so as not to entice bears and create nuisance behavior."
Timmins recalled a case several years ago where a Lakes Region resident encountered a bear on her deck when she went out with her dog. During the skirmish she was pushed into the bear as he/she tried to get away. The prior homeowners had previously fed the bear and after it returned and caused harm to the woman, the bear was trapped and put down.
While bear/human conflicts during 2013 (527 complaints) were below the long-term average (695 per year), 2012 was a challenging year resulting in a record total of over 1,100 statewide complaints, according to Timmins. Nearly 10 percent of the bear complaints during 2012 involved bears at bird feeders. Another 40 percent of the complaints were the direct result of bears raiding unsecured garbage at homes and businesses.
"These two common food attractants accounted for half of the total bear-human conflicts in that year and could have been easily avoided by removing or securing common food attractants around the yard," said Timmins.
Also potentially attractive to bears are chicken coops and other farm animal pens.
"Bears get into chicken pens — we really push the use of electric fences to protect those chickens. Chickens are on most wild animals' dinner menu. If you're going to raise chickens, it's important to protect them from predation," said Timmins, noting the increased popularity of homeowners raising their own chickens. He recommends against shooting bears caught at a chicken coop, an act that often leaves orphaned cubs.
In recent years, several bear cubs were orphaned after their mother was shot and killed; the cubs were caught and relocated to Ben Kilhem's bear rehabilitation center in Lyme.
In 2013, Kilhem, the state's only licensed bear rehabilitator, raised 27 orphaned cubs after their parents were killed for a variety of reasons including the harsh winter, lack of food, traffic accidents or being intentionally shot after they got into chicken coops.