HUMANS ARE STRANGE ANIMALS. They leave out delectable birdseed, chattering free-range chickens, and aromatic garbage, but shoot when bears, encouraged by this plenty, wander closer. Take the young bear that was up a tree in Newton on June 2. When an Environmental Police officer's tranquilizer gun failed, someone had to kill it with a shotgun. A couple of weeks earlier, another black bear was spotted traipsing through Weston and Lincoln, probably foraging for food left out in the trash. Decades of wildlife conservation have increased bear populations, but the slow process of educating humans has clearly been less successful.
There's no doubt that bears are far more visible in New England than they were even a generation ago, and it's making people nervous. Over the last two decades, Vermont's bear population has doubled to more than 6,000. In New Hampshire, there's one every half mile, and complaints about them quadrupled to a record 1,100 last year. Massachusetts was home to 100 bears in 1970, now the state has about 4,000. And yet there isn't an overpopulation problem; biologists argue these numbers are within reasonable limits.
The problem is that people do not always behave appropriately around bears — especially when it comes to not feeding them. In 2011, says Mark Scott, director of wildlife for Vermont Fish & Wildlife, a bear seeking food on a deck with her two cubs took a swipe at a woman that required stitches. "Bears are shy," he says, "but if you grab any wild animal, they can become aggressive."
Bears are moving closer to where we live largely because we're lax about our food waste. A smelly dumpster is heaven for bears; males can range hundreds of miles in a season. Last year, a bear spotted on the Cape and then relocated to Central Massachusetts subsequently wandered all the way to Brookline, which must have looked like a smorgasbord. Biologist Ben Kilham, self-described "father" to 27 orphan cubs in Lyme, New Hampshire, says most of the complaints he's heard about bears relate to bird feeders, garbage, and chicken coops. "The solution is no more complex than removing food from trash," he says.
Food constitutes about a third of everything we throw away, but it needn't be that way. A military academy in Vermont, which used to discard 250 tons of food waste a year, now saves $13,000 annually in disposal fees by sending it for composting. In 2012, Vermont passed a law that by 2020 will make it illegal to discard food and other organics; all will need to go to composting.
Another solution to unwanted bear encounters, Kilham says, is securing the garbage we do throw away in a garage or basement. "We need more towns like Lincoln that have mandated dumpsters with metal covers," says Major Kevin Jordan, assistant chief of law enforcement at New Hampshire Fish & Game. "Bears jump on plastic covers, which bend or break.
. . . If it's not easy to get food, they move on." Waste-management companies need to supply secure containers so taxpayers don't have to pay to relocate or kill bears.
When it comes to addressing the problem, Massachusetts and other New England states need to follow New Jersey's lead. An ambitious wildlife-conservation plan in effect for several years includes programs for educating the public and, it must be said, for controlled hunting. As a result, New Jersey had 43 percent fewer "dangerous" bear/human interactions in 2012 than in 2011. A proposed law now in committee, meanwhile, seeks to require disposal of food in secure containers.
"We underestimate the ability of wild animals and humans to get along," says New Hampshire environmentalist David L. Eastman. "But getting along also requires humans to behave."
Charlene Smith is a freelance writer based in Cambridge. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.