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Bear’s Grafton home invasion a symptom of climate change, human encroachment

bear.jpg
Michael Webber
/
Flickr CC
This isn't the bear that broke into the Champney's home. But it is a bear.

GRAFTON — Melissa Champney awoke to the sound of her husband, Jon, hollering at 2:30 in the morning last weekend.

At first, she couldn’t grasp what he was trying to say. Then she looked out the dining room window and saw a large black bear trapped on the enclosed porch they use as a mudroom.

“I could hear him breathing heavily, panting,” Champney said of the bear. “He was clearly agitated.”

The bear had ripped the screen off the front door and torn out the drywall, and he was starting to claw at the 4-by-4 studs like so much cardboard, Champney said.

Then it clamped its jaw on the doorknob of the porch door, and Champney suspected it knew it was his way out.

They speculate that the tempting scent of a meat smoker, stored on the porch for the winter, had lured it inside. They keep the porch door unlocked for their cats. But when the bear burst inside, the door closed behind it. The bear was trapped, and it was distressed.

Whenever it approached the door to the house, Champney gave it a kick and yelled, “Bad bear, wrong door.”

With each kick, the bear gave a huff, but it turned away.

Bears are naturally timid creatures, Champney noted; it listened better than her little dog does, she said.

Slowly and deliberately, the bear tried to break its way outside, but ultimately it required some human assistance.

Jon Champney climbed out a bedroom window and onto the porch roof, clambered down a ladder that was propped up for home repairs, opened the porch door and got out of the way as fast as he could.

The bear didn’t realize the door was open at first, so Champney had to make the treacherous journey twice to get it wide open.

“They are a native species of the state; they have been getting active in spring in New Hampshire since the dawn of time,” said Andrew Timmins, a bear biologist at New Hampshire Fish and Game. “It’s not something to get worked up about. Just be more careful.”

Bears scavenging for food in residential neighborhoods are responding to human-driven changes to the environment. Human development and anthropogenic climate change both appear to be bringing more bears into contact with their human neighbors.

Historically, the Department of Fish and Game warned residents to seal and lock up their garbage cans, take down their bird feeders and string electric fences around their young poultry by April 1, when bears typically awoke from hibernation.

“But these more mild winters are ending earlier,” Timmins said.

Now, Fish and Game issues its warnings in mid-March.

Female bears with new cubs still wait until early April, but male bears and females with yearlings will stir when temperatures rise. The best scenario for bears, and for the people who live near them, is for green up to follow close on the heels of warming weather and snow melt, Timmins said. Then bears emerging from hibernation feast on budding vegetation.

The transitional period as winter wanes and spring holds back its growth for longer, sunnier days is a hard time for bears, and it may be growing longer in New England as the climate changes. Bears that have gone months without food are hungry, but the vegetation they’d normally eat is scarce.

If they’re not able to find food in the “shoulder season,” they go back to their dens, said Jaclyn Comeau, a bear biologist at Vermont Fish and Wildlife.

“The majority of bears hesitate to come into backyards,” she said.

But bears are smart enough to take advantage of any bird seed, garbage or other human food when they can’t find their natural forage. And that means more opportunities for bears and humans to come into conflict.

The severe drought in 2020 led to one of the highest complaint years that Timmins has seen as bears resorted to scavenging residential neighborhoods for food because berries were scarce. And as people keep building homes deeper into the woods where bears live, bears are more and more likely to add people’s backyards into their range. He is worried about this summer because of the winter’s relatively low precipitation levels, although a wet spring would put his concerns to rest.

Bears are adaptable, clever creatures, Timmins said. They are at ease in the suburbs of Connecticut and New Jersey.

“They tend to start to panhandle,” he said. “They get comfortable. They learn to hang around, even approach people, when they are used to getting food tossed to them.”

He urges people not to feed bears, either intentionally or by leaving food available in their yards.

Bears incur risks they can do little to defend against when they get too comfortable around people. New Hampshire residents shoot 20 to 30 bears a year; New Hampshire Fish and Game “eliminates” another eight to 10 a year.

Home entries are rare. Timmins estimates that there may be two to three a year, although last year there were none at all. Fish and Game typically kills a bear after it breaks into a home, although it often makes an exception for a porch.

In some states, bears are grappling with diabetes and tooth decay, Timmins said, because they find high-sugar food in garbage cans. Ingesting plastic packaging in garbage is also a risk, Comeau said.

But bears also have benefited from the abundant food they glean from their human neighbors. New Hampshire sows used to have two or three cubs in a litter; now, many give birth to four.

“And most I can think of are the very large female bears living in residential areas,” Timmins said.

Even though “bear harvests” are increasing, the population has been climbing by a steady 2% to 3% each year for at least a decade, Timmins said.

For Melissa Champney, the dramatic incident solidified her perception of bears: “They really are afraid of people,” she said.

She sees the incident as a fluke to be expected when you live in a rural area surrounded by woods — and now the couple knows better than to store the smoker on the porch.

“We’ve agreed he shouldn’t visit again,” she quipped.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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