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The Bear Facts

By Jon Reidel Article published September 9, 2003

Bear facts
Associate Professor David Hirth examines a strand of bear hair left on an apple tree that he'll use for a study focused on controlling Vermont's bear population. (Photo: Sally McCay)

A male black bear saunters down out of the woods and starts flirting with the edges of a yard. The Vermont bear is hungrier, and therefore bolder, than usual because beech nuts and his other favorite foods have become scarce due to disease, and because humans are building homes in the forests that once served as the location of the bear’s primary food source.

The animal spots a bird feeder in the yard and eventually works up enough courage to knock it down with his massive claws and starts eating the spilt feed. With no human opposition in sight, the bear returns daily to feast on the bird feed.

Unbeknownst to the bear, the owner of the feeder has called the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife on him. A wildlife specialist tells the landowner to stop feeding the birds in the summer and the problem should go away. But the resident refuses, and the bear keeps coming back for more. He’s eventually declared a “nuisance bear” and is shot by a reluctant game warden.

It’s stories like these that drive the research of David Hirth, an associate professor and chair of the wildlife and fisheries biology program. With more than 200 complaints registered with game wardens since bears started coming out of hibernation in April, and 14 killings of bears in defense of property, potential clashes between bears and humans is becoming a major statewide issue.

“Because someone wants to feed birds in the summer a bear has to die,” says Hirth. “If you’re hungry enough, you’ll do things you normally wouldn’t, like go into someone’s yard. We’ve got to develop a hunting program to keep the bear population low enough so they aren’t forced out of the woods.”

Too many bears
The black bear population has risen in the past decade from about 1,000 animals to more than 3,500 statewide. Some black bears reach 300 pounds and can run up to 40 miles per hour, which makes people uneasy, despite no one being attacked and killed by a bear in Vermont since 1940.

Hirth believes achieving an optimal black bear population will require changes to hunting seasons and areas. Otherwise, he fears that Vermont could become like New Jersey and the bear population will spiral out of control. Figuring out exactly how to jigger hunting regulations is difficult, but Hirth, whose expertise has been in demand since the number of encounters between bears and humans has increased recently, says answers are becoming clearer as technology advances and research progresses.

“Genetics suddenly gives us the ability to look at things in a new way,” Hirth says. “It allows us to compare bears from the Northeast Kingdom, for example, with bears from central Vermont based on specific genetic markers.”

Hirth and Charles Kilpatrick, a geneticist and associate professor of biology at UVM, have been collecting bear DNA samples to compare gene structures between bears in various regions of the state. This information, Hirth says, offers the hard data necessary for the state to manage bear problems.

“From the genetic variations we can tell if the populations are large or small, which would give our friends at the state an idea of which populations are fragile or robust and could withstand heavier hunting pressure,” Hirth says.

Armed with this knowledge, Hirth says Vermont could extend bear hunting season and up the per person bear limit from one to two in areas of the state where there are larger numbers of bears. “The state could say no hunting west of Route 7, for example. They could set up more specific management units.”

Bearing down
Unfortunately, a lack of funding has prevented Kilpatrick from completing the analysis of many of the DNA samples collected by Hirth in apple orchards and other places around the state where bears leave pieces of hair or flesh suitable for DNA examination.

“It can be costly,” Kilpatrick says. “We look for the same kind of genetic markers they use in forensic labs to identify suspects. What we’ve learned so far is that bears aren’t one large randomly mating population. It’s a big surprise that we found any structure at all. But there’s clear genetic differences between bears in southern, central and northern Vermont.”

Kilpatrick says there are various reasons why bears stay in their regions. Natural barriers like a lake or a man-made structure such as a road could prevent them from crossing into another part of the state, he says. Some bears living in the Berkshires of Massachusetts have similar gene markings as some Vermont bears, which raises a number of other questions that Hirth and Kilpatrick would like to answer, so they would ultimately like to extend the genetic research to all of New England.

The bottom line, Hirth says, is that bears and people don’t mix, and the best way to limit their contact is to find out through research the parts of the state with the most dense populations and modify hunting seasons and kill limits around them. Until more research funding becomes available, making those modifications could prove difficult.

“The basic problem is that bears and people don’t mix well,” Hirth says. “They both fear each other, but as bears become more accustomed to people they lose that fear, and that’s apt to result in someone killing a bear. As a management strategy we need to keep the black bear population at a level where they’re not coming out of the woods because they’re so damn hungry they can’t help themselves.”