It was after midnight when my dog, Woodrow, sounded the alarm. I knew right away that this was not the usual fox or raccoon or, mercifully, the occasional skunk that we’ve become accustomed to dealing with. Woodrow barks at them, too, but in a more gentlemanly way.
I shined my light on the apple tree where a bear was looking for a bird feeder that sometimes hangs there. It was a big bear. Better than 300 pounds, I guessed. Closer to 400. The bear was on its hind legs, bending and about to break a very strong, thick branch where the empty feeder was hanging. The branch could have been a twig. A few years back, my neighbor hung his bird feeder on a very stylish wrought iron stanchion, which a bear bent into the shape of a horseshoe to get at a handful of black oil sunflower seeds.
The bear at the apple tree was looking back at me. In my imagination, anyway, it looked as though it was concentrating and trying to come to a decision on something important. It had been a long winter and food was scarce. But were a few sunflower seeds worth the aggravation? With all that infernal barking, someone might call the cops, who would come out shooting first and asking questions later.
After a couple of minutes, the bear eased up on the branch and drifted back into the darkness that matched its pelt, probably thinking it wasn’t worth the risk.
Or was I just anthropomorphizing?
Well, when I talked to Vermont’s bear expert, Forrest Hammond, a couple of days later, he saw it my way. Sort of.
There have been a number of bear encounters this spring, some of them in what you would consider unlikely places. For instance, a 200-pound bear was recently tranquilized and captured in Yonkers, New York. Then there was a bear in Connecticut that went after a couple of joggers in a park. It was a small bear, perhaps 120 pounds, but big enough and aggressive enough that one of the joggers said later, “I almost blacked out. . . . I was so scared, I thought I was gonna die.” That bear was killed. And then, in North Adams, Massachusetts, a man spotted a bear in the vicinity of a school, armed himself with a hatchet, and ran the bear off. “He’d had a few too many to drink,” the local police chief said.
None of those bear episodes ended badly. Not for the humans, at any rate. But last year, in New Jersey, a black bear chased down a hiker, then mauled, killed, and partially devoured him. The hiker had actually used his smartphone to photograph the bear, just before the attack.
One reason for the increase in the number of bear encounters is self-evident. “There are more bears,” Hammond told me. “It is estimated that there are around a million black bears in North America”—leading, he said, to “maybe 100,000 close encounters every year.”
Two or three of which will, like that one in New Jersey, end up with the bear killing a human. Many more bears, of course, will be killed by wildlife officials who are getting rid of “nuisance bears.” In Vermont, Hammond says, “We don’t try to ‘relocate’ bears.” Once a bear has lost its fear of humans, he said, there is no reprogramming the animal.
But most Vermont bears do fear humans, because they have good reason to. From the first of September until late in November, bears are legal game in Vermont. The state counts on hunters to kill enough bears, every year, to keep the statewide population somewhere between 4,500 and 6,000.
I’ve had my chances. I watched a bear eating beech nuts for over an hour one bright, cold opening day of deer season. It would have been an easy shot, less than 100 yards, but I didn’t have any reason to take it. On another occasion, I was perched in the low branches of a dead oak during archery season when a bear walked below me, moving slowly, testing the air, so close that I almost believed I could smell the animal and wondered why it didn’t make my scent. But it just walked on and I stayed in the tree, trembling slightly and tasting copper.
Those bears, of course, had good reason to fear me. There were a lot of other hunters in the woods on those days, and many of them would have taken those shots and killed those bears. And the bears, through some primitive mechanism in their biology, knew this. I’m convinced of it.
Many of the “nuisance bears” that are killed in Vermont have come here from Connecticut. The fish and game people can identify them by the bright red ear tags put on the animals by the wildlife biologists in Connecticut, where it is not legal to hunt bears and where they are, understandably, less wary than in Vermont.