Homeowners, Gardeners Must Be Smarter Than The Average Bear

Black bear - Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service.
GLASTONBURY, Conn. - Berries and grasses just can't compare to junk food like trash, birdseed, corn ... and even small livestock.

That is, if you are a black bear.

"They are like giant raccoons - they will eat whatever the can get," said Scott Reinhardt, seasonal Furbearer Technician for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, who tags, relocates and hazes nuisance bears. He is also a teacher for the Connecticut Audubon Society, where he recently lectured.

Black bears can be lured to homeowners' trash cans by the smell. To discourage this, Reinhardt said to keep trash bags in a container with a tight lid and store it in the garage or shed. Using a few capfuls of ammonia or bleach on top of trash bags can help mask the smell of food. Reinhardt said homeowners could put the trash out the morning of the collection as well.

But, if you store your trash cans inside, make sure it's a sturdy structure.

"We get thousands of calls every year of a bear tore through my shed, a bear went through my screen door, a bear went through my bird feeders or beehives - it happens all the time and it will happen more [as] they get pretty comfortable," Reinhardt said.

"They typically don't want to be around us," he said. But "they will come right up to your house if they are used to people enough."

Connecticut Landscape Suitable for Black Bears
Black bears love wooded and swamp areas, especially filled with mountain laurel. "They make the dens in laurel," he said. They can also use brush piles (such as the 400 pound male bear Reinhardt responded to in Goshen, Conn.) or in a rock cave (which is the least likely of the three, despite all the children's tales).

In the 1980s, black bears began to migrate into Connecticut from New York and Massachusetts. They are typically found in the northwestern section of the state.

"Bears are trying to survive in a much smaller area," said Reinhardt. "We're encroaching on their natural habitats."

Reinhardt is part of the team at the DEEP that ear tags both male and female bears, and collars females. (Their necks are smaller than their heads which makes collaring possible. This isn't possible with male black bears.)

"Tags help with sighting reports and nuisance reports," Reinhardt said. "It builds a resume for problem bears." Purple is the color often used for nuisance bears.

Be a Smart Homeowner
For Connecticut residents, waiting to fill bird feeders until after the first snowfall is a good way to deter black bears from dining in your garden. In areas where bear activity is high, bird feeders should be removed (or remain empty) from March through November to discourage bears from visiting (this is when they are typically the most active).

"Bears are pretty shy by nature - their first instinct is to run - like us," he said. "If it has a way out, it will take it." Typically black bears will climb trees to avoid threats.

While walking outside, keep dogs on a leash to avoid them running off after the bear. Keep rabbits in the home and not in outside hutches where bears will try to eat them.

"If you come out on your front porch and there is a bear going through your garbage, banging pots and pans is not going to help. It's like ringing the dinner bell. It's just ambient noise," said Reinhardt. "The bears really don't recognize it as you are directing it at them. It's like a car horn or traffic - they don't hear it. If you clap your hands and say, 'Hey bear! Get out of here!' - they're gone."

A loud noise, like a boat horn, will also spook bears and cause them to leave, said Reinhardt.

If gardeners are wary of being outdoors where black bears can be present, Reinhardt suggests carrying pepper spray* for "peace of mind."

"Lots of people like to have it when they are gardening - they feel safer having it because if a bear is coming up while they're digging up turnips in the yard and they're not looking ... they feel safer just being able to grab it and spray," he said.

"But if you are going to use pepper spray, you need to practice with it because it's not straight forward and there's lots of room for error," he said. "It sends out a cloud of hot pepper spray, and it can come back to you if you spray it into the wind ... you will mace yourself."

Reinhardt said pepper spray is an initial deterrent but not a solution. "If you spray, you want to get out of there as fast as possible," he said.

Most importantly, do not deliberately feed bears. This will make them less afraid of people and more likely to encourage problem behavior.

"If you give a bear a sandwich, he'll want a glass of milk," joked Reinhardt.

The DEEP encourages state residents to report bear sightings in Connecticut by using the Black Bear Sighting Report Form or by calling 860-424-3333. To view reported sightings in Connecticut by town, click here.

To learn more about black bears, click here.

* Pepper spray is illegal to have in most national parks because it is considered a weapon.

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