By Laura Nagy
The apparent increase in bear sightings in Eastman last spring and summer may simply be a factor of more observant residents, but there may be other reasons that the normally shy bruins are becoming more visible.
Many wildlife biologists refer to the black bear as “a mouth with four legs,” and, in fact, a bear’s major job during the three seasons it’s active is to get as fat as possible to make it through the one season it isn’t. In 2015, winter’s deep, long-lived snowpack meant a delay in the sprouting of vegetation that the bears rely upon after emerging hungry from the den. They may have had to range farther to feed, increasing the odds of being spotted by humans.
Perhaps more important, New Hampshire’s bear population has increased appreciably over the last couple of decades. NH Fish and Game estimates the current bear population at 5,700. Territories of the female bear can encompass as much as 20 square miles, with males ranging 50 square miles or more. With Eastman adjacent to the 3,000-acre Enfield Wildlife Management Area and surrounded by large tracts and patches of privately held forest, there are multiple pathways into Eastman for young bears looking for a new home.
In fact, any self-respecting bear would consider Eastman an earthly paradise. Bears prefer mixed forests like ours, with plenty of conifers and hardwoods like ash, beech, and oak for harvesting mast in the fall. Thick understory vegetation, wetlands, streams, grassy areas, and edges between them provide the plants, berries, and insects that constitute 85 percent of a bear’s diet. They also eat carrion and will take down fawns and moose calves if the opportunity arises.
To bears, our roads are ideal for easy travel, and their keen hearing lets them duck into cover when the occasional car approaches. Houses are tucked into the woods with minimal clearing; some homes are occupied only occasionally, so bears may establish pathways within sight of surprised owners. Eastman also offers ideal denning sites, with plenty of blown-down trees, hollow standing trees or fallen logs, rocky cavities, rock ledges, and brush piles.
What we have to realize is that bears will do just about anything to access a meal—they’ll grab bird feeders, overturn garbage cans, dive into dumpsters, shred screens, yank doors open, and even break into cars. A 350-pound, full-grown male can pull siding off a house, and their intelligence and power can combine to inflict significant damage and create danger for humans and pets.
Any kind of food—bird feeders, compost scraps, drippings around grills, pet food, garbage, even in cans with lids—should be removed or stored inside a garage or basement. Failure to secure food violates NH Fish and Game Department rule FIS 310.01, which prohibits feeding bears, either intentionally or inadvertently, because doing so causes nuisance situations, results in property damage, creates a human safety concern, and may ultimately result in destruction of the bear. People who feed bears are initially given a formal warning. Repeat violators may be issued a summons.
Face it: to bears, Eastman is the Hilton. It’s up to us to adjust our habits and remove such temptations so we can peacefully coexist with these impressive creatures in our shared habitat.
Laura Nagy, a writer and college educator, is a member of Sustainable Eastman and the Grantham Conservation Commission.