Look Around: DEM Urges Residents to Be ‘Bear Aware’
May 20, 2022
In what has become a rite of spring, Rhode Island residents are once again reporting black bear sightings. This is the time of year when young, male black bears are searching for mates, and because there isn’t much natural food available yet, they will eat just about anything they find, including bird seed.
David Kalb, supervising biologist in the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, said it’s difficult to predict how much the bear population in Rhode Island will grow, but with no natural bear predators and abundant food sources, it is expected to get larger.
“It’s hard to say for sure if there are more of them,” he said. “We anticipate that over the next five to ten years, we are going to see an increase in the number of bears, but because we’re still at such a low population level, it’s hard to evaluate what are the true numbers.”
Hunted relentlessly by European settlers, black bears had disappeared in Rhode Island by 1800, but began to rebound as bear hunting ended and their habitat was restored. With healthy bear populations in Massachusetts and Connecticut, Kalb said it wouldn’t be long before sows and cubs join the transient male bears and begin to settle in Rhode Island.
“We have thus far been lucky, honestly, not to see some sows and cubs, given the number of years we’ve had lone males in Rhode Island and with the density of bears in eastern Connecticut and southern Massachusetts,” he said. “But they will be here. We have great habitat for bears and with them being populated on the borders, it won’t be long before we do start to see them.”
Black bears do not truly hibernate, instead going into a lowered metabolic state known as winter torpor from which they frequently emerge during warm spells. As Rhode Island winters get warmer, bears could remain more active year-round, like bears living in southern states.
Bears, many of them plundering bird feeders, have been observed throughout southern Rhode Island this spring. Despite DEM’s efforts to persuade residents to remove bird feeders in early March, many people aren’t getting the message.
“We like to get people’s attention before they have an incident, but sometimes, having a neighbor’s bird feeder hit will often encourage homeowners to remove their bird feeder or if they see it happen in the neighborhood, generally you can get that neighborhood on board pretty quickly,” Kalb said. “But without having any incidents around your house or in your neighbors’ area that you know about, it’s going to be hard to convince people that they’re in bear area right now.”
What Kalb means by “bear area” are the more rural, wooded northern and southwestern parts of Rhode Island.
“It’s a rare occurrence, and it has happened, where a bear would move closer to the city just because they’ve been scared out of a certain area, or for some reason or another, but generally, I would not consider that bear habitat,” Kalb said.
As executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, David Gregg knows more than the average Rhode Islander about black bears and their habitat, so living near the Saugatucket River in the more urban municipality of South Kingstown, he was not expecting to see one in his back yard.
“I went out after dinner, and I wanted to do a little birding, so I grabbed my binoculars and I started out into the field by my house and I got 30 feet from the back door and I saw something large and dark brown through the woods, and there was a bear, about 100 feet from me,” he said.
Gregg went back to the house to tell his family and they watched it from a safe distance.
“It could tell we were there,” he said. “It sort of sniffed and it decided to move away from us and it gradually disappeared into the bushes.”
Gregg said he wondered what had drawn the bear to the more urban neighborhood. He got his answer the next day when he found the bear’s scat — full of sunflower seeds, almost certainly from bird feeders.
With education key to coexisting with bears, DEM recently partnered with BearWise, a company founded by bear biologists in the southeastern United States that specializes in public outreach.
“They’ve done a lot of really nice publications and produced other really interesting and user-friendly packets about living with black bears,” Kalb said.
DEM chief public affairs officer Michael Healey said it was important for Rhode Islanders to begin planning now for a future with bears.
“Where we are now as a state is, people see bears, which isn’t a problem or doesn’t pose a safety threat in and of itself, and there are some bear interactions with humans, probably livestock and pets, and agricultural products, beehives, feeds, that may at times constitute a problem,” he said. “We want to educate Rhode Islanders that these kinds of scenarios will become more typical as more bears become established in Rhode Island.”
As furry and charismatic as black bears may be, they are also large, powerful wild animals. Male black bears, or boars, can weigh up to 450 ponds and sows can weigh up to 250 pounds.
“Most of the time, we will never have major issues with bears,” Kalb said. “What we will have, though, is damage to people’s property, beehives and gardens, chicken coops and things along that line where a bear is looking for an easy meal and someone hasn’t taken care of their stuff and the bear takes advantage of that.”
Bears are not interested in encounters with humans and will usually run away from people, but human-bear conflicts sometimes do occur. DEM describes a dangerous bear as “one that has attacked or has attempted to make personal contact with a person or an attended [leashed] pet.”
It is illegal to feed or kill black bears in Rhode Island, and coexistence with bears involves removing food sources that will attract them.
“It’s important to recognize that bears were here in Rhode Island, historically,” Kalb said. “This is their natural zone. We are surrounded by bears from Maine to Florida and it’s not going to be long before Rhode Island is considered a standard bear state, just like every other state, and we’re going to have breeding and bears will be a common site. They’re here. They’re a natural part of the ecosystem. They serve a function in Rhode Island and people should be excited about that and look forward to opportunities to observe bears from a safe distance.”
Gregg agreed that it wouldn’t be long before Rhode Island had its own resident black bear population.
“Eventually, the sows’ range, they roam less than the males, but they roam enough to find good food and better den sites,” he said. “Yeah, they’ll get here. It’s only a matter of time.”
Healey said DEM planned to ramp up its effort to educate residents about the importance of removing food sources that attract bears.
“We’re going to become more vocal about this issue because we really don’t want to see it escalate to the point where bears are attacking pets and livestock, or, God forbid, injuring or killing a person,” he said. “We know it’s going to take time — years, really — to prime this message with the public, but we’re committed to doing that.”
Residents are asked to report black bear sightings to the Division of Fish and Wildlife at (401) 789-0281.