Our Backyard Practices Can Protect Bears

Published Mar 15th, 2022 by Cheri Asa

Black bears, the smallest bear species in North America, are relatively common in the forests of Vermont. Males, ranging from 300-400 pounds, are larger than females, who weigh from 120-180 pounds. They tend to be solitary, except for the association between males and females during the spring breeding season, and then moms with their cubs, born early the following year. Black bears are normally shy and not aggressive toward humans, even mothers with cubs. But problems can develop if they get used to people, especially if they’re being fed.

Most of us have seen videos of black bear antics in backyards, on porches and even in pools, which may even tempt some of us to try to attract bears to watch in person. However, not only is that dangerous for the people involved, it’s dangerous for bears. Bears that become accustomed to being around people, especially if that involves food, are more likely to get into trouble, increasing the potential they’ll become a risk to human safety. Then there may be little recourse except to destroy the bear, since relocation is seldom successful. The Fish & Wildlife Dept has a saying: “A fed bear is a dead bear!”

You may not even be aware that you’re inviting bears into your yard. Bears have a keen sense of smell and are attracted to the scent of food. As omnivores, bears have a varied diet that relies mostly on plants, such as berries, nuts and seeds, as well as buds and leaves. They also consume insects and grubs, especially those found in rotting wood. Despite this mostly plant-based diet, bears are very much attracted to sources of meat, such as found in your garbage, the drippings left on your BBQ grill, or the pet food you might leave outside for your dog or cat.

The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department has developed guidelines for living safely with black bears. These guidelines focus on bird feeders, garbage, compost, pet food, BBQ grills, bee hives and chicken coops as common sources of food or food odors. They recommend only putting out bird feeders when there’s snow on the ground, a time when bears are likely to be in hibernation. Garbage should be stored in the garage or a shed until you take it to the transfer station or put it out for pickup that same day. Even safer is to freeze meat scraps until the day of trash removal. If using an outdoor dumpster, make sure it is bear-resistant. For composting, be sure to use plenty of “brown” material to minimize odor, and use a sturdy bin or a pile protected by electric fencing. Pets shouldn’t be fed outdoors, but if that can’t be avoided, be sure to bring any left-over food inside immediately. If you keep bees or chickens, the hives and coop should be protected with electric fencing.

If you do encounter a bear, give it a clear escape route so it can avoid you. From a safe distance, make loud noises to scare it away, such as shouting or banging pans together. Although bears tend to be most active at dawn and dusk, they may be out and about any time of day, so be aware. If you do have a bear encounter, be sure to report it to the Vermont Fish & Game Dept. You can find more information on living with bears from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife including their Black Bear Incident Report form.

More information can be found in our resources.