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W. Lebanon Residents Report High Level of Bear Activity

A young black bear ambles about a backyard on Green Street West in West Lebanon, N.H., on May 17, 2014. (Valley News - Greg Fennell)

A young black bear ambles about a backyard on Green Street West in West Lebanon, N.H., on May 17, 2014. (Valley News - Greg Fennell)

West Lebanon — Linda and Gary White own one of the biggest dogs in town, a 1-year-old English mastiff named Atticus who stands about 3 feet tall and weighs 140 pounds.

But Atticus almost looks tiny compared to the black bears that the Whites have seen lumbering lately in the fenced backyard of their Spring Street West home.

They include a likely female, seen with three cubs, which Gary White guessed could weigh as much as 240 pounds; and a suspected male that looks to be about 180 to 200 pounds .

“I watched him go in every driveway on the street,” Gary White said earlier this week. “He was setting off all the (sensor) lights.”

The Whites, who grew up in the area and have lived in their house for more than 40 years, said the number of bear sightings this year has felt relatively on par with recent years.

Others, though, said it feels like the bears’ presence is on the rise.

“By the way it sounds, he’s been tormenting these guys and down at the school, too,” said former Meadow Brook Village resident Shari Gardner, who now works as a nanny at the housing complex.

Gardner said she’s yet to spot a bear this year, but she has heard of far more sightings than last year, when she lived at Meadow Brook.

That’s true for Joseph Ducharme, as well, who said he’s lived in the neighborhood for about 20 years and has heard an increased buzz about bears this season.

“I think it’s because of the long, cold winter,” Ducharme said as he paused on his bike. “They’re definitely looking for food.”

Whatever the statistics, several people around the neighborhood Tuesday acknowledged the animals’ presence has been acutely felt in recent weeks. On occasion, police have arrived to disperse gawking crowds. Mount Lebanon Elementary School reportedly has a whistle alert to bring students and staff inside if a bear is seen in the nearby woods; and most bikers, joggers and dog-walkers around the neighborhood appear aware of the bears and where to find them.

Linda White said some people have even come up around her side yard, trying to look at the bears or take pictures. She doesn’t mind the people, but she’s protective of the bears.

“Society’s encroaching on them, that’s my feeling,” she said, as Atticus played with a deflated basketball out back.

She spoke to the extensive development that’s taken place in the area since she was a child.

“We live in the woods,” she said. “This is woody.”

Mount Lebanon interim principal Mary Estee did not return requests for comment Wednesday.

Lebanon Police Capt. Tim Cohen said the number of calls his department has received about bears townwide is on the high end of average for the past four years. Police were called 18 times in both 2011 and 2012, then received only six complaints last year, he said.

The tally had reached 17 by Tuesday evening, Cohen said. Although calls tend to drop off after May, the total could continue to rise.

“Usually this time of year we run into this,” he said. “These bears are usually fairly docile but it’s important to remember that they’re still wild animals and they can still be a very dangerous threat.”

Wildlife officials from both New Hampshire and Vermont said this seems to be a low-key year for bear-human conflicts thus far. However, statewide numbers tend to pick up as camping increases in the summer.

“I would say things are average or below,” said Andrew Timmins, the New Hampshire Fish and Game bear biologist. “The exception would be a couple spots that have had some issues due to historical feeding that’s been resumed, so there’s been some hot spots, but all in all I feel that it’s been fairly quiet.”

Both Timmins and his Vermont counterpart, Fish and Wildlife biologist Forrest Hammond, said a strong season for beechnuts has helped to temper bears’ foraging excursions into neighborhoods. The nuts are an important food source for bears, they said.

Plentiful beechnuts prior to bears’ hibernation period also led to larger litter sizes, Hammond said, adding that sows with cubs generally attract more attention and are of more concern than individual bears.

Still, even if there are natural sources of food, bears will be attracted to bird feeders and dumpsters, the biologists said. Timmins wrote an impassioned news release recently, asking the public to avoid tempting bears by feeding them — intentionally or not.

“Why are bears so devalued by some members of the public that they refuse to change their own behavior?” Timmins wrote in the release. “Why is there an expectation by some members of the public that Fish and Game should remove or kill the bear, so that people are not inconvenienced by the need to change their behavior? Without support and assistance from the public, Fish and Game lacks the ability to significantly change human behavior and reduce bear/human conflicts.”

Hammond said he appreciated and agreed with Timmins’ news release. Although there have been fewer nuisance bear issues in Vermont through this spring compared to last spring, he said it’s nevertheless important for the public to actively prevent attracting bears.

Indeed, a law enacted last year stipulated that people must take serious steps to discourage bears from coming onto their property before killing nuisance bears. The law has so far worked well, Hammond said, noting that the state has issued several warnings but no citations.

“We think that’s been a great success,” he said. “In talking with the game wardens, it’s given them another tool. The people know it because we’ve advertised it a lot ... and our law enforcement folks have not had to be heavy-handed.”

Hammond said his agency is monitoring some bears in Springfield, Vt., while Timmins said his agency was made aware of bears that were getting into populated areas of Hanover a few weeks ago.

Residents have also posted on several Upper Valley email listservs about bear sightings, including in Enfield and Norwich. Linda Papademas, who has lived in her home in Enfield near Main Street for 27 years, said she had only seen a bear on her property once before — until this month, when she saw two ransacking her garbage can.

“I’m concerned because they really don’t have anywhere to go, and once they located my trash, I assumed that they’d be back,” Papademas said.

Nancy LeSourd, who has lived in her home near Dan & Whit’s in downtown Norwich for more than 30 years, said she had never seen a bear in her backyard — until this month, when she was awoken around 3 a.m.by her dog barking at a bear trying to get into her bird feeder

“We’ve encroached, obviously,” she said. “I think they ought to be able to (live in this area). I think we just have to not tempt them with all this stuff.”

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