By Jeff Woodburn
Ten year-old Mathew Roy with a tiny camera in his extended right hand slowly moves closer to his target, which is about 20 feet away. His mother and half dozen other on-lookers hang further back focusing on the same spot. In the distance loud fireworks explode into the hot muggy night. The amusement is a large female black bear lumbering through on open apartment dumpster on Bethlehem’s Main Street, next door to the Elementary School. Spewed all around as far as the eye can see is evidence of the frequency of this activity. Barbara Roy, of Bethlehem, who stopped to get a glimpse of the animal with her son, says she’s “not really” worried about the safety of the situation and neither do many of the other people gathered around the dumpster.
The scene is momentarily interrupted by a car pulling into a parking spot right next to the dumpster. The bear scamper away into the nearby bushes and waits. Johanna Peck, a young woman in her twenties, emerges from the car with a handful of miscellaneous trash and nonchalantly drops it into the dumpster. Just, then another bear, this one a male, arrives. This being the mating season, the female bear joins him and they saunter off to the distant field. As Peck walks toward her apartment, she says she’s comfortable around bears. “They make a mess,” she acknowledges, “But they’re harmless.”
It is this bemused attitude of indifference and odd affection that worries public safety and wildlife officials and some residents who feel like their homes are being stalked by these large, omnivorous scavengers. Bethlehem Police Chief Mike Ho-Sing-Loy says bears make up the “majority of the calls” to his department. “We do have a bear problem,” he said, “Safety-wise, we’ve been pretty lucky that no one has gotten hurt. Some individuals are feeding bears, which attracts them.” He is proposing an ordinance to require potential food sources to be controlled either by bear-proof dumpsters and removing bird feeders in areas of high bear traffic areas.
Bear activity seems to be greatest in the area where the towns of Bethlehem and Littleton share a border. The animals are not so much running wild, but amok. Some neighborhoods are having multiple daily sightings from various different bears, which they contend seem strangely comfortable and increasingly bold. Steve Cloutier, who lives in Rambling Woods Mobile Home Park on O’Kane Street (off Route 142) in Bethlehem, says eight different bears frequenting his small neighborhood 142. In the twenty years he’s lived there, he has never seen anything like it. The bears, Cloutier said “have no fears at all.” One even entered an enclosed porch of one his neighbors. Peggy Butler, who lives nearby, added, “It’s a shame they are becoming so tame.”
Over the last two decades, two local trends – the sprawling commercial and residential development of once large, undeveloped tracks of land and a doubling of the bear population – have merged. Unlike some wildlife this encroachment doesn’t drive species deeper into the wilderness, but draws them out. Bears are smart, adaptable and opportunistic and hungry. “They will eat 24, 7” said Andy Timmins, Bear Project Leader with the New Hampshire Fish and Game. While the food is the goal, a lifestyle and culture emerges and literally changes the animal. The biggest concern for wildlife officials is people’s penchant for feeding bears, either intentionally or through neglect. When a bear begins to associate people with food, they lose their natural fear and become more assertive. In time, “Bears begin to treat people like a bears,” explains Nancy Comeau, Bear Technician, USDA Wildlife Services, “Often people misinterpret the behavior warning signals.” Bears are very social animals and their behaviors change with the circumstances. If a food source is abundant they may not mind close proximity, but if it is scarce they could well send a number of message ranging from a “bluff charge,” to either grunting or huffing as a way to say back-off.
There has been no modern day bear attacks in the state, although local folklore is full of stories of beastly attacks by bears on people and private property. As late as 1955, cash bounties were offered by towns for killing bears. There was a close encounter in Flume area of Franconia Notch a few years ago, when a bear scratched a child while reaching for a pack full of food.
The bear problem in Bethlehem and Littleton appears to be related in part to an active feeding site in the Brook Road area of Bethlehem. Fish and Game law enforcement officials have made repeated visits to one particular home, which has “historically been a problem” said Fish and Game Captain Kevin Jordan, but the owner has refused to even answer the door. The administrative rule that prohibits feeding bears requires that an offender be served a warning before a fine can be issued. Jordan said, they intend “to ramp up our efforts. It’s hard to get the message out.”
Bears, which have been collared with a GPS tracking devise as part of state research project, indicate a high frequency of visits in the general vicinity and specifically to properties with unsecured dumpsters and active bird feeders. Feeding bears not only attracts bears to a spot but their hunger is never satisfied, so the result is a spike in nuisance behavior. This is why some areas have bear problem, while others do not even though they have an some unprotected food sources.
Beyond stopping intentional feeding, some communities like Gorham, Franconia and Lincoln have enacted so-called bear ordinances to put pressure on owners to be responsible for their waste to accessible to wildlife by placing steel tops on their dumpsters, a cost of around $200 retrofitted and less if purchased as an accessory to a new one. Not everyone thinks this is the solution. Chris Wheeler, from Groveton-based Normandeau Trucking, which mostly operates waste container system for municipalities, said steel covers are very dangerous. “They come down like a guillotine,” he said. He offered two possible solutions, a rag wet with vinegar (Fish and Game suggests ammonia) and “a thinning of the bear” population.
Kevin Roy, of North Country Environmental Services, which runs the Bethlehem landfill, says the ordinance makes good sense. The bear problem, he says, is a result of Bethlehem ending their transfer station relationship with NCES. “Many people found other ways to manage their waste,” including putting small residential dumpsters in their yards. He estimates there are 150 new, small dumpsters in Bethlehem, most with flimsy-plastic tops and full of house-hold garbage for spans of two weeks or more.
Lincoln Police Lt. Cecil Cooper said his town’s ordinance has worked very well. Five years ago, officers would regularly chase bears from dumpsters by spraying them with pepper dust spray, but now he says, “Doesn’t ever see them.” It takes time to break the cycle, but if the problem is left unattended to it grows, Jordan says, “neighborhood to neighborhood.” It starts as “a novelty,” he says, but that wears off.
Alana Lewis understands that. She’s been under-seized (is this the right word?) by bear visits to her home on Crane Road in Littleton. She has had nearly daily encounters, including one that was faces-to-face. A bear entered her garage, scratched her house, car and removed a bird feeder from a closed trash can. “At first it was kind of exciting,” she said, “but I’m over my excitement.”
What to do if you encounter a bear?
Bears typically don’t want encounters with people, said Andrew Timmins, Bear Project Leader, at Lancaster’s Fish and Game office. They like the security of a thick cover that forest and bushes provide, but if it does occur, his advice is to: “talk calmly, back away and maintain eye contact.” Don’t ever turn away and run, this is sign of weakness. You should show, he said, “some level of dominance.”