Wildlife & Nature

Despite Perceptions, Black Bear Numbers Remain Low

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Black bears are North America’s smallest and most widely distributed bear species. But there aren’t many in Rhode Island. (istock)

“We obviously have bears here — people see them and they make the news — but it’s entirely possible that often it’s the same individual bear visiting many different sites,” URI researcher Amy Mayer said. “It sounds like we have bears everywhere, but I think the numbers are very small. And a lot of the time it’s just a young bear moving through the area, not necessarily a resident bear.”

For five years beginning in 2015, when bear sightings were growing, Mayer used what she called a “scent station” to see if she could lure bears to one of 41 sites in western Rhode Island where barbed wire had been wrapped around a small group of trees and baited with a scent attractive to bears. The objective was to get the bears to cross the barbed wire to get to the scent and leave a hair sample behind in the wire. But after five years, she collected not one strand of bear hair, though she collected plenty of hair from numerous other species.

In 2018, as part of a project to detect bobcats in the state, Mayer installed trail cameras at 100 sites, hoping that bears would be photographed as well. But after three years she collected just three photos of black bears at two locations in the Arcadia Management Area in Exeter and at the Nicholas Farm Management Area in Coventry.

“It was super discouraging at first, because it made us wonder if we were doing it right,” she said. “But then we realized that we just don’t have a lot of bears here.”

Charles Brown agreed. A wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) who keeps track of the fur-bearing animals in the state, estimated that fewer than 10 black bears reside in Rhode Island — perhaps even fewer than five. And despite at least one report of a mother bear with cubs, he has been unable to confirm that there are any bears breeding in the state.

“We have a big year for bear sightings, and then things go quiet again, and then we have another big year,” Brown said. “It’s been getting more consistent lately, which leads me to think we have a small resident population, but based on the number of reports and where we see them, there aren’t a lot of them.”

Like Mayer, Brown believes most of the bears observed in Rhode Island are juvenile males wandering around looking for food and an available territory. Most sightings come from the Charlestown, Hopkinton and South Kingstown area, as well as around Scituate, Coventry and Chepachet. Some may be animals whose territory straddles the Rhode Island and Connecticut border.

“What typically happens is that juvenile males, maybe 12 to 15 months old, go off on their own or have been driven off by their mother,” Brown said. “They’re capable of covering lots of ground, and they go off on walkabouts, exploring the world on their own for the first time, looking for places to settle down. Young females tend not to move far from their mother’s home range, so they don’t tend to roam the landscape.

“A juvenile male bear, once he’s left the protection of his mother, his biggest problem is dealing with resident male bears. They won’t welcome him sticking around, so the juveniles get pushed to the edges and follow the path of least resistance. They end up coming to an unoccupied territory.”

According to Brown, the bear population in Connecticut has grown to more than 800 animals, with more than 4,500 in Massachusetts. Most of the bears in those states are west of the Connecticut River, but they are expanding toward Rhode Island.

“I expect that in the next five or ten years, we’ll see this trend of bear numbers in Rhode Island increasing,” he said. “It’s inevitable.”

Black bear
Habitat loss is an ongoing problem for bears and poses the biggest threat to long-term viability of the species in many areas. (istock)

Black bears are believed to have been a common species in Rhode Island prior to European settlement of the region, but they disappeared soon after. Brown has found no reports of bear sightings in the state in the 1800s or most of the 1900s.

“They had value for meat and fur, and they were also probably perceived as pests and a threat to livestock,” Brown said. “And with no hunting regulations, it was open season. If you saw a bear, you probably took it at any time.”

After being hunted out of much of their range in the Northeast, bear numbers slowly began to rebound after hunting regulations were enacted in the 1930s and forests grew from abandoned farmland. Bears were first documented returning to Rhode Island in the 1990s. In 2001, more than 25 bear sightings were reported to DEM, though most were probably about the same bear.

With a small resident population likely living in the state, Brown occasionally receives reports of bears creating a nuisance by damaging bird feeders, killing livestock or causing other problems.

“If you live in western Rhode Island, you’re living in bear country, and they’re driven to anthropogenic food sources,” he said. “Bird feeders are the number one thing, so now it’s time to think about taking your feeders down.”

Backyard chicken flocks and beehives can also attract bears, along with improperly stored food and trash.

“Most bears are not troublesome, but individual bears will develop bad habits, and once they develop a taste for something, we see a pattern and it doesn’t end there,” Brown said.

DEM has acquired two bear traps to remove nuisance bears, but the traps have only been deployed a couple times and no bears were captured.

“If they cross a certain line — which we consider to be more than one livestock attack — that bear would be a candidate for euthanizing,” he said. “We have a policy to not relocate bears that demonstrate severely destructive behaviors. We have not had to put a bear down, and we want to avoid those kinds of situations.”

Brown encouraged residents who see bears to report them to DEM so he can keep track of where the animals are and what kind of damage they may be causing.

“My message is this,” he said. “Bear sightings are going to become a more common occurrence. We’re no different from other places. People elsewhere are living with bears and going about their lives, and we can too.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

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