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Area Bears Are Becoming Bolder; Trackers Say Some Residents Still Aren’t Eliminating Food Sources

  • "A motivated neighborhood can do way more than we can, ever," said Hanover Deputy Fire Chief Michael Hinsley of town officials' ability to shape residents' behavior to stop leaving out food sources that attract bears. Hinsley uses an antenna to pick up the weak blip of signal being sent out from a radio collar on a black bear he has taken to calling Mink. The was tranquilized in April and fitted with a collar carrying a radio transmitter and a GPS tracker. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hanover Deputy Fire Chief Michael Hinsley stopped to talk with Huntley Road resident Glenn Johnson about the town's bear problem in Hanover, N.H., Wednesday, June 13, 2018. "This is an education and we have to, as a town, critically change our behavior," said Johnson about the continuing problems with black bears seeking food in the bird feeders and trash cans of residential areas. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Following the blips from his radio receiver, Hanover Deputy Fire Chief Michael Hinsley was led to a marshy area between a path of powerlines and Sachem Village in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, June 14, 2018. Nearby he identified scattered and trampled leaves, a sign of bear cubs play-fighting, claw marks in trees, and bear scat. Hinsley often takes to the woods to retrieve images from game cameras set up to film the animals. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hanover Deputy Fire Chief Michael Hinsley talks with a colleague while transferring video from his game cameras in his office in Hanover, N.H., Wednesday, June 14, 2018. He said he has terabytes of computer storage filled with images and video documenting the bears' habits as they seek food in residential areas of Hanover. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2018

Hanover — The tall, lean man who serves as the town’s deputy fire chief, top health officer and — more and more these days — its go-to bear wrangler, looked through his glasses at the digital memory card lying on the desk in his Public Safety Building office.

“You’re going to need more than you have there,” he said on Wednesday, speaking at his signature rapid-fire pace and scoffing at the card’s 64-gigabyte data capacity. “I have a terabyte. I have hundreds of gigabytes of bear, and a terabyte of squirrels.”

Michael Hinsley amassed all that data — most of it video from his cellphone and a series of game cameras that he’s set up along travel corridors used by a black bear named Mink — over the past two years, when bear complaints from the community’s 11,000 human residents began to spike.

“I get phone calls, emails and texts,” he said.

The winter was quiet, but this spring, he’s gotten between two and five calls daily from residents who have caught on to the role he’s playing in efforts to herd the bear away from Dartmouth College fraternity houses and Hanover High School students, and toward the human-light woods surrounding Boston Lot Lake.

The tone of the calls are sometimes matter-of-fact, and sometimes breathless.

He is told about bears bluff-charging barking dogs, bears wandering in and out of open garages, even, in one case, a bear trying to climb into a hot tub that already was occupied by a 9-year-old girl.

Last year, town officials and Andrew Timmins, the state’s top bear biologist, decided that Mink’s three cubs were getting too bold, and needed to be euthanized.

But a public outcry led to the intervention of Gov. Chris Sununu, who told the state Fish and Game Department to instead release the cubs into the wilds of northern New Hampshire.

The public had a mixed reaction to how authorities handled the situation, and now, a similar situation seems to be unfolding. Before the winter ice had fully thawed, Mink began showing up on people’s doorsteps with a fresh cadre of four new cubs, which she sends scrambling up a tree when she senses danger.

Hinsley’s a talker. Calling him garrulous would be like calling a bear hirsute — but even he chooses his words carefully when it comes to expressing a firm opinion on what Mink’s fate should be. He’s caught between the town and the state, and between pro-bear and anti-bear camps.

“There’s a lot of people really committed to this bear,” he said. “But there are also a lot of people who don’t want this bear around here.”

Hinsley got into a marked town vehicle and began cruising slowly through the neighborhoods that lie near both the downtown, and the Mink Brook wilderness corridor that gave the bear her name.

“The reality is, I work for 10-11,000 people,” he said. “And I drive around in this car. And it works.”

As he drove, pedestrians caught his eye, sometimes hailing him like a taxi. They all wanted to know the latest bear news, or to share their experiences.

“She crossed to the high school the other day,” Hinsley told a man. “So I treed her. And I got peed on by a black bear.”

When Mink was fitted with a radio collar in April, it allowed Hinsley and state officials to track her whereabouts. Every day, the state generates a map that indicates where she was during any given hour, and Hinsley travels with an antenna and tracking system that allows him to get a closer look.

“She’s so accustomed to people that she’s not a normal bear,” he said.

Though Mink is notable for her lack of concern about the presence of humans, she’s not the only bear in town. Hinsley said he thinks there are at least two or three other adult bears, and at least a couple more cubs.

As he drove, he told bear stories.

“This house right here, their Jack Russell terrier last year, or maybe the year before last year, got swatted by the bear,” he said.

Hinsley knows of Hanover residents who have put out huge blocks of homemade suet to see the bears better, or who have fed the bears on the theory that it would keep them from disturbing the garbage. One man used his hands to knock a bear off his back porch railing, and then threw a brick at its head.

That’s why Hinsley is so proud of his video footage. He said it’s a vital part of his strategy to educate the public on why both of these are bad ideas.

“They want to feed the bear,” he said. “I say, ‘It’s a public health issue and you can’t.’ This is the thing. I show them a picture of the bear. I show them video of the bear. I tell them, ‘Look, I’ll give you all the video you want of the bear.’ ”

Hinsley’s eyes constantly swept left and right as he traveled up and down the winding residential streets. This is what effective bear management looks like, he said.

“There’s all sorts of competing goals and interests,” Hinsley said. “My job is to make sure that nothing bad happens to the people of Hanover. That’s my job. That really is my job. See that goddamned bird feeder?”

Feeders

There’s little debate over how to keep a bear in the woods. It comes down to three things: Bird feeders, unsecured garbage and composting bins.

Remove those food sources from a neighborhood, and the bears disappear like magic.

To Hinsley, the enemy is the persistent birdseed distributor, the trash service contractor who can’t afford to upgrade to bear-proof containers, and the college student renter who sees nothing wrong with leaving exposed food scraps on a trash heap buffet.

And so Hinsley has embarked on an all-out campaign to target bear-attracting scofflaws, visiting houses repeatedly until his message is heard.

As he cruised up and down the streets, for each residence, he seemed to know whether it would have a bird feeder, where and how the garbage was kept, and how responsive the residents are to his pleas for compliance.

“This property,” he said, pointing out a neat row of trash cans that represent a marked improvement. “It looked like a snow bank of garbage.”

In Lebanon, Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos said on Thursday that he’s well acquainted with Mink, and not only through calls from concerned residents of that city.

“She was on my front lawn,” he said. “I’m familiar with her. And she’s familiar with the neighborhood and where the food sources are.”

Christopoulos said that, based on the complaints he’s received, he doesn’t consider bears to be a current problem in Lebanon. He and the city include information about bird feeder and garbage management whenever they get a chance.

“We educate the public on how we should behave, and let the bears be bears,” Christopoulos said.

But a targeted effort involving face-to-face conversations with every bird feeder owner in the city?

“I personally don’t have the time or resources to go door to door,” he said.

However, in an email to stakeholders earlier this month, Timmins credited Hinsley’s approach with tamping down potential conflicts between humans and bears.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that the bear is still able to get garbage or bird feeders at any location in Hanover,” Timmins wrote. “We have harped on this for over a year. ... Michael Hinsley has done the vast majority of the legwork and has managed to keep conflicts with this bear at a very minimal level this spring. That is no easy task.”

Answers

Pulling to a stop in a residential neighborhood within a half-mile of downtown, Hinsley pointed out how the terrain looks to a bear. To the left, child swingsets and trampolines sat on manicured lawns of a row of densely packed houses; to the right, brush-covered land sloped sharply downward, part of a heavily forested and conserved depression that is prime bear habitat.

“You can’t be surprised when there’s nature in a nature preserve,” he said.

This side-by-side contrast is a feature, not a bug, of Hanover’s design, allowing clusters of human residents to have access to the green spaces and bird songs that help improve one’s quality of life.

The forest provides its own natural foods for the bears, Hinsley explained.

But if a home on the edge of the residential neighborhood has a high-calorie food source — black oil sunflower seeds, or the remains of last night’s pizza party — bears have every incentive to exit the woods.

Each lapse of human behavior is like a feeding station, providing a stepping stone that allows the bears to penetrate deeper into the human habitat.

One particular neighborhood looks like all the others, but Hinsley said Mink doesn’t visit it. He considers it a rousing civic success.

“It’s not me. A motivated neighborhood can do way more than we ever could. Get it?” he asked. “Neighbors are way more powerful. You get one committed soccer mom? Good lord, you can make a change.”

While most of the bears have exhibited a healthy fear of humans, Hinsley said, Mink seems to treat them as a source of both food and entertainment. Just last week, he said, she amused herself by sitting beneath a zipline behind the Hanover High School, watching as the students sailed by.

According to Hinsley, Mink’s unusual tolerance for humans was no accident. He said he knows of a man who, for years, intentionally fed Mink a daily meal of black sunflower seeds from Lebanon Feed and Supply, and maple-glazed cruellers from Lou’s Restaurant on Main Street.

Two years ago, something changed that Hinsley says caused Mink’s presence to prompt community concern.

“He fed those bears. It was his passion,” Hinsley said. “But he died, and then this bear’s like, ‘Where’s my donut?’ That’s when we had a problem.”

Another man flagged down Hinsley’s vehicle. He came to a stop and rolled down his window, listening.

“Let me tell you something about that bear,” said the man, with little preamble. “It charged me. Two days ago. And it’s going to eat a dog. It’s going to hurt someone on that path. There’s all kinds of kids that walk down that path.”

Hinsley spoke to the man, expressing both sympathy and concern about the presence of the dog as an aggravating factor. It was just the latest in a never-ending series of conversations to try to manage the public’s interactions with the wild animal that lives in their midst. He referenced his video footage.

“I’ll show you,” he said. “I’ll come visit later.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.