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New Vermont Law: Don’t Feed the Bear That May Bite You

Montpelier — Mark Scott, the director of wildlife for the state’s Fish & Wildlife Department, has a saying: Wildlife management often means people management.

That mantra speaks to the motivation behind a new Vermont law taking effect next month that bans people from intentionally feeding bears and prohibits killing nuisance bears without first taking reasonable non-lethal measures.

It also ends the department’s practice of reimbursing non-farmers for bear damage to crops, livestock and bees.

The goal, Scott, said, is to discourage humans from encouraging bad bear behavior.

“If people are making food readily available to bears that are in their backyards, that’s creating a lot of bears out there that are learning to get their food from people instead of getting it from out in the world,” Scott said.

While residents might mistake bears enjoying food on their property to be harmless, Scott warned the animals “could be going to somebody else’s property the same night five miles away.”

“It creates huge problems that are still going on in parts of the state,” he said.

The Sportsmen’s Act of 2013, spearheaded by Fish & Wildlife and signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this month, takes effect July 1. While about 20 provisions address a range of hunting and wildlife issues, several significant changes relate to the public’s interaction with bears.

An existing law prohibits killing bears that have been attracted to artificial bait or food, such as bird seed.

Reasonable non-lethal measures include preventative aversions, such as installing electric fencing and properly securing food and trash, as well as reactionary steps, like scaring bears with horns or firecrackers.

They include other common sense steps: Don’t leave pet food outside. Wash barbecue grills after use. And if bears are eating from bird feeders, the bird feeders should be removed.

“It’s a combination of taking those preventative measures and also just conditioning that bear so (human property) is not a friendly place to come,” Scott said.

The law includes an exemption that allows bears to be killed in situations when human life is in danger, such as if a bear has broken into a building, or if a bear is damaging corn fields.

Additionally, the department will continue to reimburse bear damage to residents who earn at least 50 percent of their income through farming.

Scott said Vermont’s bear population is currently estimated at about 6,000 bears, the high end of the state’s target range, and the state is working to curb those numbers. But he noted that decreasing the bear population and making it more difficult to kill bears are “totally separate issues.”

“Managing the numbers and managing so they don’t show up in people’s backyards are related, but the issues are very different,” he said.

To help decrease the bear population, the department is increasing the bear hunting season by four days this year and asking hunters to buy a $5 hunting license specific to bears. Bear hunting was previously lumped in a broader hunting license; separating it out, Scott said, will help the department gather information, including how many people are hunting bears and where.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.