Why Conflicts Between Humans And Bears Are Still On The Rise In N.H.

Jan 9, 2019

Credit Jeannette S. / Flicker CC

Conflicts between bears and humans in New Hampshire almost doubled this past year with about 800 reported encounters.

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Andrew Timmins, a bear biologist for the N.H. Fish & Game Department, about this increase.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

So what exactly counts as a conflict with a bear? I think we should define that for listeners.

Yeah, I think that's important. Really bear conflicts, they're generally very benign. They're a person that has a bear you know getting into their garbage or their bird feeder, those type of things. That's the vast majority of the conflicts. Some can be a little more serious. We do have bears that will predate people's chickens if they're not properly secured. On some really rare occasions we do have bears that can kill larger livestock and we do have some bears that can enter homes. But the majority of the complaints each year we deal with are really pretty benign. But they may not be benign to a person who doesn't understand bears or isn't used to seeing a bear in their yard.

And there has been an increase in these kinds of conflicts in previous years. What is the root causes of that?

Well, it's multiple things. You know, last year was an increase for sure, but it's important for folks to understand that we've been here before. You know, we had a very high year back in 2012. Since 2012 we've had multiple low years. So these conflicts vary from year to year, and they're driven primarily by the amounts of natural food. When there's a lot of natural foods in the woods in the summer and fall, complaints tend to be pretty low. And on really poor food years, which is what we just experienced, that's when we see these real increases in complaints.

The bears are finding what they need in the woods so they're coming into people's yards.

That's right, exactly. Their food motivated and if they're not finding food in the woods, they're going to find food in yards. So you know as we see more restaurants come into areas with unsecured dumpsters, we see more campgrounds open up in the White Mountains with more people camping and recreating the outdoors during the summer, with people comes food attractants. So that also plays a pretty strong role in the number of annual conflicts.

Yeah, and we've even heard about bear sightings of course this past year in Manchester for instance, and some of the bigger cities of the state. So as development encroaches on their territory, bears are going to be seen more.

Absolutely, and if you live in New Hampshire, you live in bear country. You know, 10, 15 years ago you didn't see nearly as many bears in the very southern part of the state along the [Massachusetts] border, but you do now.

Can you tell me about a recent encounter that you had with the bear? I assume that you have to deal with a lot of calls.

As far as conflicts go, I actually haven't dealt with a bear complaint since fall. And that's largely due to the fact that bears den very early this year because of the lack of food. What we have been dealing with is this real epic event with a lot of orphaned cubs this year. And since Sep. 26, biologists from our agency as well as some dedicated volunteers have picked up 50 orphaned cubs around the state. And we're still getting calls on those. One was picked up in the town of Warren this past weekend. Prior to that, one was picked up in Ossipee.

What's causing that increase in orphaned cubs?

There's a variety of factors. But it all kind of boils down again to food. So a year ago in the fall of 2017, we had tremendous food crops in the state. Last winter, seemed like every potential female that could have cubs was successful in having two or three cubs. And then that was followed by this year with very poor food conditions. And when that happens, it becomes difficult for those females to one care for those cubs. As their milk supply starts to run out, the cubs may be abandoned. But the other thing that happens under poor food conditions is that mortality rates go up for bears. They get hit at a higher rate crossing the road. Hunters tend to be more successful. So I don't think we can pin it on any one cause, but we certainly know that the mortality rate on female bears this fall was much higher than what we see in other years. And that resulted in an increasing orphaning rate in cubs. And these cubs are extremely small. A cub this time of year should weigh about 40 pounds. Most of these cubs are coming in between 10 and 20 pounds, so very malnourished, very poor condition. And these are animals that would not survive if they weren't brought to a rehabilitator.

Sadly, killings of bears were also up this year. What leads to the kinds of conflicts where you think there needs to be destroyed?

The bears that we're going to dispatch are the ones that enter homes as well as the ones that are consistently killing large livestock. But the primary reason that we as an agency have to dispatch a bear is bears that enter homes. So I think the number is low, but I would like to keep it low. It's not how we want to be managing bears, but occasionally there are some animals that we have to destroy. We would rather teach people how to resolve that by changing their behavior -- those type of approaches.

So what are some of those practical things that people can do?

Take your bird feeder down when winter ends. Have your bird feeder down by April 1. That's a biggie. You know, store garbage in a way that bears aren't going to gain access to it. So you know preferably in a shed. If you have chickens, you really need an electric fence. It's a good way to protect your investment. Bears getting into chicken pens, it's become a growing issue in our state. If we completely rectified those three causes, we could reduce the annual bear complaints by upwards of 70 percent.