CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire’s state bear expert says good-hearted but irresponsible residents are “loving the animals to death.”
This month, Fish and Game officials discovered four sites around the state where residents have resumed feeding black bears despite previous warnings to stop. Two sites are in Stoddard, one is in North Conway and the fourth is in Bethlehem, said bear biologist Andrew Timmins. The Bethlehem site has been active since the 1990s and attracts 15 bears.
“That one’s severe,” he said.
In North Conway, two bears had to be killed because they had become so accustomed to human food that they were breaking into cars and garages and killing rabbits. The feeding had been going on there for most of the last decade.
While warnings have worked in the past, what Timmins calls the “sensible approach” isn’t working as well this year. Instead, authorities have issued several court summonses under a Fish and Game Department regulation that prohibits the intentional feeding of bears.
“I think these people that feed bears, they’re driven so much by the desire to see these animals in their yard, that once things are quiet for a while, they think, ‘Maybe I can get away with it again,”’ he said. “When there’s food on the landscape, bears are pretty social critters, and they know how to find food based on where other bears are finding food, so it doesn’t take long for it to snowball into one bear, into several bears.”
People who feed bears often get emotionally attached to them, Timmins said. Some mistakenly believe the bears won’t survive without the extra food; others simply like to see them up close. And they aren’t heeding the old adage: “A fed bear is a dead bear.”
“My point of view is you’re being selfish. You’re putting the bear in harm’s way to appease yourself,” Timmins said. “They’re loving the animals to death is what they’re doing. They’re not evil-hearted people who are out for the demise of these bears. They’re the opposite. I understand that, but they need a wake-up call.”
Violators of New Hampshire’s regulation can be fined as much as $1,000. Since it took effect in 2006, 42 warnings have been issued for incidents in 22 towns, and one person has paid a fine. Three more have pending court cases resulting from the incidents this spring, Timmins said.
In the Northeast, Vermont, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island have laws or regulations similar to New Hampshire’s. Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts have no such restrictions on bear feeding.
The black bear is the only bear species in New Hampshire, with an estimated population of 4,800 to 5,000 animals. The last time a black bear killed someone in the state was 1784.
More recently, a Grafton woman suffered cuts on her arms when a bear attacked her as she opened her door to let her dog out in 2012, a year in which bear complaints spiked to more than 1,000 when a food shortage resulted in unusually desperate bears. That year aside, complaints have decreased in the last 10 years compared to the previous decade – even though both the bear and human populations have grown. Timmins attributes that to educating the public about eliminating bear attractants such as unsecured garbage, bird feeders and unprotected chicken coops. But he believes more must be done: “It is time to push hard again.”