Hanover — Town officials are warning residents to be alert for black bears about town and to remove food sources after several sightings in recent weeks, including repeat encounters with a sow and three cubs in a wooded residential neighborhood off South Main Street.
Megan Donegan, a Ripley Road resident whose family includes three children age 11 and under, said she saw the sow and her cubs, who are now considered yearlings, walking down School Street around 5 p.m. on Thursday.
“Everybody is on real high alert because she’s very comfortable in coming right up to property, looking for food, even places that don’t have their trash out,” Donegan said.
The town posted on its website on Monday: “We encourage all residents to be ‘Bear Wise’. Most bear problems can be averted by removing or controlling things known to attract bears like bird/pet food, garbage and smells like grease and food residue on barbecues.”
Officials also encouraged residents to differentiate between “emergency encounters,” such as a bear in a schoolyard, trying to enter a home, or stalking people; in such cases, call 911, officials said.
“Non-emergency situations,” such as “a bear roaming around and checking a garbage can” or pulling down a bird feeder, should trigger a simple call to the police department’s non-emergency number (603-643-2222), the web posting said.
Town Manager Julia Griffin emailed a New Hampshire Fish and Game Department conservation officer on Monday, saying, “Our concern is that this family unit is very comfortable in the West End neighborhood and there is real concern that the sow will injure a resident. This family unit is into everyone’s trash, their bird feeders (which are now being taken in as we have gotten the word out to the neighborhood) and climbing all over backyard swingsets.”
Although Hanover officials have inquired with Fish and Game about relocating the family of bears, state officials say the problem can be traced to bird feeders and unsecured trash containers in the college town.
“Relocating the bears is not going to resolve the problem. This issue has been years in the making,” Andrew Timmins, the Fish and Game bear project leader, said on Monday. “Like any community in New Hampshire, if people have unsecured garbage and bird feeders out, wildlife is going to find it and use it as a food source. That’s what this particular sow has done for years over there.”
Donegan said the sow has “bluff charged” some neighbors walking their dogs, and a bear, most likely the same one, seriously wounded her own Jack Russell terrier in an encounter in November.
Donegan went outside to walk the family’s 12-year-old dog, named Gus, after dark when he started sniffing around. She thought it was a skunk, but soon realized the cubs were scurrying around the dumpsters full of trash.
The sow “made all kinds of really strong noises” and reared up, she said. Gus came between the bear and Donegan, who ran back to the house. The sow “either swatted him or picked him up and threw him,” she said.
The dog suffered five puncture wounds and broken ribs and couldn’t walk for a month, but has since recovered.
The neighborhood, just a five-minute walk from the Dartmouth Green, is near Mink Brook and the Connecticut River, and Donegan said the sow does a “Mink Brook loop” in search of food.
Donegan said the bear was attracted by a dumpster at a nearby apartment building. State officials have met with Hanover residents about reducing “attractants,” but Timmins said student-tenants, and some out-of-state property owners, are hard to reach to educate about the dangers of an overflowing dumpster.
Timmins said state and Hanover officials are hoping to convince such landlords to invest in steeltop, bear-proof dumpsters, while also encouraging other residents to take down their bird feeders now that bears are no longer hibernating.
Relocating the sow and her offspring, he said, would just mean another bear would move in and fill the void. As yearlings, the younger bears are also about to be booted out by their mother, who will likely breed again in early summer. He also said the sow’s behavior when confronted by Gus should be considered “defensive,” and not aggressive.
“The resolve here is to starve the bear out of town and make it so there is no food in town, and the bear will move on, but it’s going to take everybody in town,” he said.
Donegan said she is concerned about both children and the bears themselves, and favors relocation because the sow seems too comfortable around humans. But she also sees a change in human behavior as the real key.
“There is a definite responsibility among the townspeople to take care of their trash, but I think we face a problem being in a college town. With the turnover of college kids, trash will always be an issue, unless there is strict enforcement that all dumpsters have to be bear safe,” Donegan said.
Although a blizzard is forecast for today, Timmins said he does not expect the bears to return to their dens.
“She may crawl back in, but to be completely honest with you, a foot of snow is not going to bother her as long as she’s got food,” he said of the sow, which he estimated weighs 160 pounds. “She may just bed down for the storm and then come out, looking for a bird feeder.”
John Gregg can be reached at 603-727-3217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.