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Wild animals moving farther into human spaces

Once deep woods denizens, more critters are roaming the suburbs south of Boston

John Maguranis (ABOVE)/ ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO (below)

A coyote photographed in Belmont.

We should get used to seeing bears, beavers, and fishers, never mind the already common deer, wild turkeys, coyotes, and, to a lesser extent, bald eagles, wildlife specialists say.

Because more of them will be living among us in the future.

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Last summer, a young male bear came from somewhere in the west on a journey of exploration and worked his way through much of Bristol and Plymouth counties. He was seen in Attleboro, then in Lakeville, Rochester, Marion, Mattapoisett, and Middleborough, and then in Wareham and Plymouth. There were sightings every day. He was spotted up a tree in a residential neighborhood. He was seen following railroad tracks in Middleborough and crossing a well-traveled intersection south of that town.

AP

A black bear hid in a tree on Lamb Street after being pursued by police in Attleboro.

Evidence is strong that bears and other wild creatures that once lived in our region are returning, according to those whose jobs bring them into contact with wildlife. Species such as black bears, beavers, and fishers - which retreated to the deep woods after human beings destroyed former habitats, cutting down trees and building farms, towns, cities, and highways - have been growing used to us and the environment we’ve created.

Animals such as coyotes and wild turkeys have learned how to live in peopled areas, finding food and places to live easier to come by than in the wild. They adapted their habits to take advantage of ours, such as our propensity for using outdoor trash cans and bird feeders.

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Deer populations have grown in the absence of natural predators, and as human development has disturbed remote woodlands, deer have looked for new homes among us.

Intensive restoration efforts, meanwhile, have brought back the bald eagle - though this iconic American bird of prey is unlikely to become as common as its cousin, the red-tailed hawk, which sometimes can be spotted even on utility poles along the Southeast Expressway.

‘Animals know that living in suburbia is a fantastic place to get food and shelter. They’re like a kid in a candy shop.’

Megan Hanrahan,  Brockton animal inspector
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The young bear wandering around the region last summer was probably driven off by his mother, carrying her next cub, and was “traveling around and hitting bird feeders and cranberry bogs,’’ said Jason Zimmer, of the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and a specialist on Southeastern Massachusetts.

“We suspect he’s still in the area,’’ denned up for the winter but possibly already up and about now because of the unusually warm and snowless weather.

Bears typically travel long distances in the search of food. When bear populations grow dense in their home areas, solitary bears will travel long distances in search of promising habitats such as “our large blocks of forest habitat,’’ said Zimmer. The state’s bear population has grown from 100 in the early 1970s to about 3,000 in 2005. Increases in bear populations in Western and Central Massachusetts can be seen by the rising number of human sightings and the numbers killed by hunters. In Berkshire County, the number of bears killed by hunters in a year went up from 29 in the late ’90s to 76 in 2007.

“As the bear population grows and as they look for new habitats, we will see bears more regularly,’’ Zimmer said. “It’s something we should be prepared for.’’

Megan Hanrahan, the animal inspector for Brockton, who has dealt with fishers, deer, and coyotes, among other animals, agrees.

“After working with animals for 20 years,’’ she said, “I know animals are very smart. They know that living in suburbia is a fantastic place to get food and shelter. They’re like a kid in a candy shop.’’

“It’s the normal progression of nature,’’ said cranberry farmer Dawn Gates-Allen, who works 27 acres of bogs with her husband in Freetown and finds deer herds nibbling at her vines. “As wildlife is learning to cohabit with us, populations are increasing.’’

Adaptable species will come back, said Greg Mertz, the veterinarian at the New England Wildlife Center in Weymouth. “They take a couple of decades to figure out how to live in a new environment. They figure out you can eat grass seed as easily as acorns.’’

Sparked by the bear’s visit last year, the Water Watch Lecture Series at the South Shore Science Center in Norwell asked Zimmer to give a talk on the region’s “new’’ comeback species. On Wednesday, he will speak on “New Furry Friends to Our Area: Black Bears, Fishers, and Beavers.’’

Hunted and trapped for their fur in Colonial times when beaver hats were the height of fashion in Europe, beavers have spread throughout New England in recent years. The largest native rodent, adult beavers weigh up to 80 pounds. They follow moving water, damming streams to expand ponds in which they can feel safe from predators and build their lodges.

It’s a survival strategy that doesn’t mix with cranberry growing, which requires controlled water depths.

“They can ruin a cranberry grower,’’ Zimmer said.

While the beaver population has returned in Massachusetts to an estimated 70,000, there are still relatively few of them in this area. Evidence of beavers has been “very localized,’’ said Zimmer. They’ve been found in the North River and South River watershed in Marshfield and Duxbury, and in Hanson and Halifax in the Burrage Pond wildlife area, he said.

In Duxbury a few years ago, beavers dammed a stream and flooded a low spot around a municipal well. The town hired a licensed trapper to remove the beavers. They’ve also been seen in Wompatuck State Park in Hingham, according to Lisa Badger, the animal control officer for Hingham and Hull.

Fishers, meanwhile, have spread widely throughout Southeastern Massachusetts. About the size of a fox, a large adult can weigh up to 13 pounds with a dark coat that looks black from a distance. “It looks like a ferret on steroids,’’ Zimmer said.

The name “fisher’’ derives from a French word for a pelt, “fiche.’’ It’s commonly called “fisher cats,’’ though cat is a misnomer. It’s a rodent.

Smart and determined predators, they will follow cats up into trees. They were extirpated from the region when people cleared forests for farms and trapped and killed wild animals that raided their chicken coops.

The return of the fisher is “natural and makes a lot of sense,’’ said Mertz, who treats a wide range of animals at the wildlife center.

“We have a different sensibility as a community in our view of wildlife,’’ Mertz said. “We’re letting fields regrow into forests, letting backyards grow up. And we have lots and lots of squirrel’’ - a big food source for fishers.

“There are some misconceptions out there that they’re a horribly scary species,’’ Zimmer said. Humans have nothing to fear from fishers, though your cat may.

On the other hand, Hanrahan said, fishers can be aggressive protecting their young or their food. “If a fisher has your cat,’’ she warns, “let it have the cat.’’

While animals like fishers are tolerated because they’re no longer a threat to human food sources, animals such as deer and wild turkeys are growing in numbers because they are no longer widely sought for food.

Once a rare sight in the deep woods, today it’s possible to run into a deer close to home. “I was nearly run down by a deer’’ while walking outside the wildlife center, Mertz said. Given the animal’s size and speed, “she would have done serious damage,’’ he said.

Burgeoning deer populations, estimated at 85,000 to 95,000 statewide, pose a challenge for backyard gardeners and farmers - they like rhododendron leaves and chew the bark off fruit trees. A surveillance camera at a cranberry bog caught a herd of deer snacking on cranberries, knocking them off the vine, throwing them in the air, said Gates-Allen.

Another once rare but now common wildlife presence, coyotes make news when they move into a new neighborhood, such as Wellesley, where they recently killed a small dog and a deer. Overall, however, the state’s population has stabilized in recent years at an estimated 8,500, according to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Coyotes are a natural part of our ecosystem and very adaptive, Mertz said. “They’re very comfortable sitting in your backyard eating fruit or going through your garbage.’’

They prosper because people offer so many unnatural food sources - trash, birdseed, small mammals, compost piles, Zimmer said. “We probably have coyotes that walk through our yards and neighborhoods at night.’’

But they can get too comfortable, Badger warned. If you tolerate or encourage a coyote, it may end up sleeping on your porch, she said. After coyotes’ presence grew intrusive in one Hingham neighborhood, it was discovered that somebody was feeding them. “He tossed [the coyote] something off the grill. That’s a big no-no,’’ she said.

Wild turkeys, whose numbers are similarly increasing in our area as they have adapted to our environment, can be equally opportunistic. Wild turkeys were hunted to extinction in Massachusetts by the middle of the 19th century, but made their way back into the state in the early 1970s. Today their number is estimated at 20,000.

“They’re the unwanted house guest,’’ Badger cautioned. If you encourage one to stick around, “they’ll hang out and invite their friends,’’ she said, and roost on the roof. While it’s easy to scare one away, a group can be formidable and “some can be nasty.’’

Area residents have been scanning the skies for sight of another high-profile wildlife presence, the bald eagle. There are three nesting sites in the region, two in Fall River, and one in the Assawompset Pond complex in Lakeville and Middleborough, Zimmer said. Eagles can fly a long way in a day, said Mertz, so you might also spy one on a reconnaissance flight from roosts on the Merrimack River or father north.

As for the whereabouts of last year’s black bear, Zimmer said, bears will den in old brush piles, rock piles, or in a cavity below an old dead tree. “They just basically scratch out a nest and lay on dense vegetation,’’ he said.

Based on experience with growing bear populations in other parts of the state, we will probably reach an accommodation with an ursine presence in our forest habitats as well, he said.

“It comes into town and creates a lot of hysteria,’’ Zimmer said. “Slowly the town and the law enforcement, by working with us, learn how to handle the bears, and they cause a lot less attention.’’

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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