The story of the black bear that is coming to a suburb near you begins one day in the fall of 1969, when two bears showed up along a road in the northern Berkshires, in the tiny town of Florida, and appeared to be drunk.
Back then, black bears were barely hanging on in Massachusetts, at the losing end of a 12,000-year fight with humans and human development, and the tiny population of survivors was believed to live somewhere nearby, along the border with Vermont.
Still, these two bears were different. They hung around, happy for the crowds that came to watch them. Game wardens said the “tipsy bears,” as they became known, were drunk from too many apples fermenting in their bellies. Wardens even went so far as to briefly close the hunting season to give the bears time to “sober up” before someone took a shot at them.
Ultimately, it turned out the bears were comfortable around humans because they were semi-tame, raised by a guy in Shelburne as a roadside attraction for his gift shop on the Mohawk Trail, then released when he couldn’t afford to feed them. But all the fanfare forced the state’s wildlife experts to acknowledge that “we didn’t really know anything about bears in Massachusetts, other than there are some,” according to Jim Cardoza, then a young biologist for MassWildlife.
Thus began a five-decade effort to understand and conserve black bears in the state, a project that has succeeded beyond most people’s wildest dreams, to the point where the population is thriving in Western and Central Mass., and roaming male bears have been spotted this summer as far east as Newburyport.
Bears have learned to live around people. The question now becomes: Are people ready to live around bears?
Starting in 1970, just after the “tipsy bears,” the state shortened the bear hunting season to a single week, from 10 weeks since the early 1950s, and tasked Cardoza with figuring out how many bears lived in Massachusetts and the history that brought them there.
“I was able to learn that at the time of Colonial settlement, bears were widespread in the state, except for very Southeastern Massachusetts and the islands,” Cardoza said. But as settlement advanced inland to the Connecticut River Valley and the Berkshires, bears saw their forest habitat turned into farms, and their status lowered from king to pest; farmers could, and still can, legally kill any bear destroying their crops, at any time.
They nearly disappeared in the decades between the end of the Civil War and the onset of hunting regulations in the early 20th century.
By the mid-1970s, when Cardoza finished his study, he estimated there were only 80 to 100 bears in the state, all in the Berkshires. With such a small base, conservation goals were modest.
“The dream would have been to see them get established in western Franklin and Hampshire County,” he said, but worried even that was a stretch. It wasn’t.
By the early 90s, bears were thriving in the western part of the state, with an estimated 1,000 throughout the Berkshires and nearby hill towns. At the time, the Connecticut River was seen as a natural barrier to the east for all but the most adventurous young males. Yet over the next three decades, as the bear population in Western Massachusetts became more concentrated, females crossed the river in search of unoccupied territories, spreading throughout Central Mass., crossing endless natural and man-made barriers, including highways here, there, and everywhere.
By 2011, the last time the state attempted a proper bear census, their numbers had grown to about 5,000. More incredible was how they were doing it, showing time and again an incredible resourcefulness, especially among breeding females, who figured out how to raise young in the woods behind a Target.
The rebound is multifaceted, of course, but much of it is geographic, with the return of so much farmland to woods. By some estimates, the state has gone from just 20 percent forested at its agricultural peak to 80 percent forested (or at least semi-developed woods and shrubland). Food availability is a second huge factor, after opportunistic bears discovered that humans intentionally leave out food and birdseed (it actually took decades for bears to learn bird feeders were a excellent source of food, experts say, and now they can’t get enough).
“The expansion east is just a natural phenomenon of population expansion,” said John Organ, a conservation scholar and former University of Massachusetts professor who recently joined the board of MassWildlife. “Bears are territorial, so those bears that are entering the population are looking for new unoccupied territories, and much of the state has returned to habitat where they can do quite well, even into Eastern Massachusetts.”
The next barrier for breeding females to cross is one that would have seemed unimaginable five decades ago — Interstate 495, the beltway that has long served as the unofficial boundary of the outer Boston suburbs.
Plenty of roaming males have crossed it, and just one can cover a lot of ground and create a lot of commotion. Over the past few months, the same bear has been spotted in Woburn, Tewksbury, Billerica, Peabody, Danvers, Middleton, and Newburyport, wildlife officials said. But importantly, the females have yet to make the leap.
“That would be the next big news: females breeding inside 495,” said Dave Wattles, the bear biologist for MassWildlife. “They haven’t conquered it yet, and we’re still not getting reports of females much east of Worcester” outside of one area, which Wattles calls “the northern spur.”
If you were to look at a map of the state and its highways, and imagined yourself as a bear, you’d see the easiest path to the coast is north of Route 2, through Middlesex County along the New Hampshire border and connecting to plentiful woods throughout Essex County that provide numerous paths to the shore.
But once you get past the exurbs and approach the denser Boston suburbs, Wattles said, the potential bear habitat shrinks dramatically. “Everything is paved,” Wattles said. “I just don’t see how a female could raise cubs in that environment, and there’s a far greater likelihood of a vehicle collision.”
Yet if there’s anything biologists have learned in these five decades of studying bears, it’s that there is no overestimating their resourcefulness.
“We had very little to do with [their success]. Bears are just extraordinary animals,” said John McDonald, a professor at Westfield State University who did his doctoral research on Massachusetts black bears three decades ago. “What’s been satisfying is to see our predictions come true. When you’d talk to other bear biologists back in the day, we’d ask questions like ‘How wide of a corridor do bears need to get from one habitat to the other?’ And sometimes I’d say ‘How wide is the bear?’”
They’ve learned to live around people almost entirely without incident. The reverse cannot be said; with no natural predators, humans remain the chief source of bear mortality. Between 25 and 65 are killed by vehicle collisions each year, according to state environmental police records, but the actual number is likely much higher.
Hunters now have three seasons when they can target black bear, but it remains a fringe pursuit, largely due to the extreme difficulty, after the state outlawed the use of traps, snares, bait, and dogs to hunt them. Most of the 200-250 bears harvested each year are by opportunistic hunters in tree stands waiting for deer.
Yet as the number of bears increases, MassWildlife has stepped up efforts to get more hunters into the woods pursuing them, both to thin the population and to keep them from losing their fear of humans. Once black bears become regular visitors to suburban garages and school bus stops, as has happened in New Jersey, everything becomes more complicated, McDonald said.
The best way to keep the bears at bay is exceedingly simple, specialists said: Get rid of birdfeeders and put electric fencing around chicken coops. They are the two biggest attractants to backyards and hardly anyone had either a few decades ago.
“There’s nothing we can do as a manager to keep bears from backyards as long as people continue to provide food for them,” Wattles said. “We want bears in our woods and wetlands. When we invite them into our backyards is when we have problems.”
Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram @billy_baker.