Bears are staging a stunning comeback almost everywhere in New England, from northern Maine to Cape Cod. But nowhere in the region has the population of the American black bear, largest predator in the Northeast, exploded more dramatically than in Massachusetts.
The Commonwealth has seen the numbers of native bears surge ninefold since the 1980s, from a few hundred to more than 4,500. And the population, growing at a rate of 8 percent a year, is becoming an increasing, sometimes unsettling, presence in suburban life.
“Massachusetts is bear country,’’ said Laura Conlee, wildlife biologist and black bear project leader for the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “Black bear are returning to areas that haven’t seen bears in centuries.’’
She calls it “an environmental success story” that “these big mammals could make such a reappearance in [America’s] third most-densely inhabited state.’’
The surprise expansion of bear country to within view of Boston’s gleaming towers speaks to how the vigorous return of forest on abandoned farmland — plus thick stands of mature trees and substantial protected wetlands within suburbs — has spawned a wonderland habitat for the thick-tufted beasts.
“Why are bear populations growing so fast? Because they can,’’ said biologist Conlee, “because there’s room for bears that didn’t used to be there.’’
Not everyone is thrilled.
As bear haunts expand to Interstate 495 and farther east, there has been a sharp uptick in anxious summons to police, car accidents involving bears, and bearish swoops on trendy urban/suburban chicken coops beloved by locavores — raids that leave a few bloody feathers, faint egg smears, and perhaps a niggling new ambivalence toward nature in the rough.
“Human conflicts involving bears are rapidly increasing this spring,’’ said Vermont’s chief game warden, Jason Batchelder. “Vermont’s wardens are responding almost daily to events involving bears in search of easy calories.’’
A dumpster-diving bear is a nuisance. A bear devouring an acre or two of a farmer’s forage corn in a single night is an economic wrecking ball. A bear swimming the Cape Cod Canal and going walkabout from Sandwich to Provincetown can severely tax the 911 system. A bear busting into an indoor freezer in Presque Isle, Maine, and absconding with slabs of bacon and an Easter ham is more trouble than a bear should be.
And a bear frolicking in tree limbs perilously near the Massachusetts Turnpike is a flat-out public hazard. Police shot and killed the unfortunate star of that 2013 incident in Newton after tranquilizer darts failed.
The wildlife management view, generally, is that black bears — who, unlike their grizzly and polar cousins, seldom attack humans — are here to stay, and it behooves humans to adjust to the new reality. Put electric fences around those beehives. Pull in bird feeders on April 1. Maybe pass on planting that berry patch. Keep Kitty’s kibble indoors — for that matter, keep Kitty indoors.
“People are going to need to change some of their lifestyle,’’ said biologist Conlee. “Because bears certainly aren’t going to change theirs.’’
In Massachusetts, the past five years have seen more than 644 reports of bears killed or injured in car collisions, bears causing “depredation’’ or “property disturbances,’’ and bears threatening “public safety,’’ according to state biologist Michael Huguenin.
Black bears can weigh in at 450 pounds, eat anything from skunkweed to carrion, and for all their bulk can bound at faster than 30 miles per hour. Across New England, numbers of bears have more than doubled in the new century to about 47,000 in the six states — including, improbably, some 10 ursine wayfarers in western Rhode Island.
Those 10 “appear to be transient young males from Massachusetts or Connecticut,’’ said Charles Brown, wildlife biologist for Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management. “But I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we see sows and cubs — the start of a small resident population. The overall region is bursting with bears.’’
Although the bear population in Massachusetts has expanded faster than in any other New England state, Maine still reigns supreme in the overall bear count with about 30,000, up more than 30 percent in 15 years. Vermont has 6,000 bears, double the 1990s population. New Hampshire has 5,700 bears, which state wildlife officials consider 1,000 too many, as mischief-making hefties have become prevalent in summer havens surrounding Lake Winnipesaukee.
Connecticut has 700 bears, up from a handful in the 1980s, according to wildlife biologist Jason Hawley. As in Massachusetts, Connecticut’s bears were hunted nearly to extinction by the early 1800s.
There are perhaps no more wondrous embodiments of the wild than a bear prowling deep forest or a proud bear mom proceeding across a high country meadow with three bobbly cubs in tow, or a yearling learning to whack fish from a cascading stream.
“A healthy population of bears is proof that a state has done a pretty decent job of protecting its wilderness,’’ said Forrest Hammond, lead bear biologist for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “To see a bear on its natural ground is to experience the real thrill and glory of the wild.’’
Hammond added, however: “For years, the public has been saying it wants more bears. But now people are saying maybe enough is enough, and the bear population needs to stabilize.”
For bears, civilization is a smorgasbord, a groaning table of temptation — from grease-filled barbecue traps to brimming garbage pails to yummy compost heaps to bird feeders full of black-oil sunflower seed, as beloved by bears as by any blue jay.
Meanwhile, although the bearish lust for honey is legend, the amber goo isn’t what puts the real gleam in their eyes. The critters that have lately made such a smashing success of beehive raids — hundreds of colonies have fallen to claws and jaws — are more interested in the protein-rich larvae and pollen, according to Rick Reault, Tyngsborough-based president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association and keeper of 500 hives at 40 locations.
“They are happy to eat the honey, too, but it’s the brood’’ — larval bees — “that really whets their appetite,’’ said Reault, who has lost 25 hives to bears in three years.
While bears almost always prefer flight to fight, a startled bear is a dangerous bear. Attacks happen.
Carly Hall, a 17-year-old high school student, was walking a dog down a quiet residential street in Amherst last month and hardly noticed two bears lurking in the shadows. Until one charged. Hall suffered minor claw scratches and a bruised arm as she scrambled for safety atop a parked car.
“It was such a strange situation,’’ she told the Hampshire Gazette.
In the past, a bear guilty of such transgression might have been shot. The state environmental police quickly located the bears — a mother and cub — but opted for mercy, reflecting the state’s emergent policy of tolerance for bears.
“This would be categorized as a rare incident,’’ Environmental Police Lieutenant David Unaitis told the Globe. “We are not going to indiscriminately kill bears.’’
New England’s most famous — if ignominious — recent bear attack involved four bears, a few bird feeders, and the governor of Vermont. Late one April night three years ago — in what now seems the signal event for the region’s escalating bear onslaught — Peter Shumlin heard noises in his Montpelier backyard and padded out to investigate, clad only in underwear. He startled a furry quartet draped from a tree and leisurely snacking on sunflower seed.
In perhaps not the wisest executive action, Shumlin sought to retrieve the feeders. Bears whuffed. The governor bolted — fleeing for the kitchen door with at least one burly bruin in hot pursuit.
The barreling creature “was seven feet from the door when I slammed it and I thought, ‘That bear’s coming right through.’ ’’ Shumlin later said of the encounter. “Bears, bare feet and [wearing] barely nothing. It’s a bear of a story.’’
Colin Nickerson may be reached at nickerson.colin@ gmail.com.