By the time the bears turned up in a home full of children, the humans of Hanover, N.H., had tried just about everything.
They’d blasted the bears with paintballs and hounded them with airhorns. They’d pleaded with neighbors to lock up their trash and put away their bird feeders. But the bears — three yearlings and their mother — were undeterred.
After a Hanover family came home over the weekend just as two of the young bears were spilling out of the back door, the state issued a grim ruling: The black bears would have to die.
“We’ve exhausted all other possibilities,” said Andrew Timmins, the New Hampshire wildlife biologist who leads the bear project.
But the Department of Fish and Game’s plan to capture and euthanize the bears isn’t sitting well with residents, who point out that the blame for all this lies not with the bears but with people who can’t be persuaded to secure their trash.
“It’s not their fault,” said Nicole Cantlin, who lives in nearby Enfield and started an online petition — it was nearing 5,000 signatures by Thursday afternoon — asking for the bears’ lives to be spared. “I really think there’s better options for these bears.”
But there may not be.
The bears are so accustomed to humans that they don’t frighten easily. They scour the town for delicious garbage instead of foraging in the forest, and they feast on bird seed in backyards. And whatever they think of the people cowering inside, they certainly don’t regard them as much of a threat.
Relocating the bears won’t work, Timmins said, because the bears just make their way back or set about terrorizing some other town. And besides, other bears have already staked out territory all over the region, and releasing these bears elsewhere could result in some pretty ugly bear violence.
Turning them over to some sort of facility appears implausible as well. Timmins said he’s not aware of any sort of bear sanctuary on the East Coast; zoos and refuges are already overbooked with bears. This part of the world is simply not lacking for bears.
And anyway, Timmins said, “If I was a bear that grew up in the wild, I wouldn’t be particularly interested in going to live behind a high fence.”
None of this has dissuaded the bears’ supporters, who have deluged the state and the town with phone calls, e-mails, and social media posts.
“It’s been an active week on the bear front,” said Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin.
Bears are common in Hanover, Griffin said, but “this is the first time we’ve had a sow and cubs this bold and this present.” She couldn’t recall another Hanover bear being euthanized or relocated in the past.
Timmins appears to be bearing the brunt of the backlash.
“Some people are very mad, writing and saying some pretty nasty things,” he said Thursday. But others are just upset, and though they don’t quite come around on the question of killing the bears, “they understand the complexity of the situation.”
Ben Kilham, an independent wildlife biologist in nearby Lyme, largely agrees that none of the alternative solutions is workable. Rather, he said, the bears could be allowed to stay in Hanover; it’s the people who need a little extra training.
“If the town started to have some regulations about when bird feeders could be out, garbage, dumpsters,” Kilham said, “there’s probably no reason this bear couldn’t stay there.”
He said the yearlings are likely to decamp soon anyway, when the sow prepares for a new litter and sends her charges out into the world on their own. And once that happens, the sow won’t need nearly as much food (somewhat remarkably, the bears do not appear to have acquired names).
But training the people of Hanover may prove to be just as difficult as reprogramming the bears has been.
Passing an ordinance isn’t possible until the annual Town Meeting a year from now, Griffin said, and that would trigger hearings that last still longer — all for a measure that may not successfully persuade people to take better care of their trash.
Hanover’s large population of college students who live off campus are not known for responsible care and maintenance of their trash cans. And “nobody in this community is going to pay attention to a $10 fine,” Griffin said of one idea that’s been bandied about.
“I just feel there has to be some solution short of killing them,” said Mary Holland, a nature writer and photographer in Hartland, Vt., just south of Hanover. She said maybe the state could leverage the threat of killing the bears to persuade people to secure their garbage and put away their bird feeders. She’s examined the bears’ scat in the woods, and while the winter leavings included plenty of bird seed, this month she’s seeing evidence of appropriate foraging.
Fatal bear attacks, she said, are rare — statistics are hard to come by, but news reports show only two wild bear-related deaths in the contiguous United States since 2010. And the Hanover bears, though they’ve startled some residents, haven’t hurt anyone or done any serious property damage. The resident who found the bears leaving the home told the Valley News they caused no damage.
“It is all human behavior that has produced this problem,” Holland said.
On that, everyone agrees.
“This is not the fault of the bears,” said Timmins, though the state’s position on the bears’ death warrant will not change.
“We have failed as stewards,” Timmins said. “If anything good can come out of this, we won’t let it happen again.”