RHODE ISLAND — Bears have taken up residence in the Ocean State, the Department of Environmental Management says, and people should keep food out of their yards to avoid visits from the animals for the sake of both populations’ safety.
“Up until this year, we thought that the bears sighted in Rhode Island were transient/wandering bears from Connecticut or Massachusetts,” said Michael Healey, chief public affairs officer for DEM.
But with recent sightings in South County and Kent County, Healey said, they’re now convinced Rhode Island is home to a population of five to 10 bears. The bears likely migrated into the state from Connecticut, where there is a population of 800-1,000 bears, and Massachusetts, which has a 4,500 strong bear population. Healey said young male bears get pressured out of their home dens and go roaming, searching for new territory. A small population of bears has found their new home in the state’s forests, which still cover the majority of the land, despite civilization’s encroachment and the damage done by Gypsy Moths.
“We will likely end up with more bears than that. Although we’re known as the Ocean State, forestland covers 60 percent of our land. That’s prime bear habitat,” Healey said.
Teaching Bears to Avoid People
On Sunday, DEM Environmental Police were called to Warwick near Downing Lane, where a bear had taken down a bird feeder. The officers followed the bear into West Warwick, losing sight of the animal near the VFW in the Tanglewood neighborhood, Healey said. When called to a bear sighting, Healey said, Environmental Police are tasked with “hazing” or disturbing the bear to encourage it to leave the area. The officers are also doing this to create a negative association in the bear’s memory with people, without harming the animals. Loud noises and air horns are usually employed, Healey said.
Ideally, the bear learns that the food it smells nearby isn’t worth the negative experience of being near people, he said.
Bears’ noses and stomachs are telling them to visit people’s neighborhoods, where they can find any food source left outdoors, whether that be birdseed, pet food, or livestock. During this time of year, leaves are green and lush, so things look plentiful in the natural world, but a lot of that vegetation hasn’t started producing food that bears can eat yet.
“There’s not a lot of natural food for bears right now,” Healey said.
By contrast, this time of year, there’s plenty of food for birds to survive without feeders, so there’s no need for concern that you’re harming birds by removing feeders to avoid attracting bears, he said.
“Now is actually the time of year when you can take the bird feeders in,” Healey said.
It’s safe to leave bird feeders out between October and the end of March, when the risk of bears seeking food isn’t so great, he said.
Bears Are Smart, Fast and Agile
The surest way to keep a bear out of your yard or neighborhood is to avoid leaving anything outside that the bear might want to eat. They’re expert climbers, so fences won’t keep them out. They can figure out how to open unlocked car doors, and can run 20 – 25 mph.
“So they can move,” Healey said.
In the event you happen on a bear face-to-face, Healey said, you should raise your arms to make yourself look bigger, make a lot of noise, and back away from the bear while keeping your eyes on it. Don’t turn away until you’re out of sight of the bear.
“By no means should you run,” Healey said.
Bears: The new normal
The state’s growing bear population is going to require extra care from people and the regular attention of DEM Environmental Police, Healey said.
“It’s obviously something we’re going to have to monitor very closely,” Healey said. People are also going to have to get used to the idea that bears live in the forests, and adjust their habits to avoid having the animals visit uninvited.
Should a bear become too familiar with people, Healey said, and fail to sense danger around them, regular bear visits could lead to mauled pets, eaten livestock, and, “God forbid, a human being could be attacked.”