Black bears in the backyard: Why they’re everywhere, and what to do
By Kate Morgan
October 10, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
A black bear plays in a yard area outside a home. (iStock)
The bear made its way down Main Street, cutting through backyards and getting into mischief, while Leslie Badger followed at a distance.
“He checked out a few gardens, helped himself to some vegetables and fruit trees,” she says. “Then he found a nice pool to go swimming.”
Badger is a police officer and the one-woman animal control department of Hingham, Mass., a suburb across the harbor from Boston. When a bear showed up at the beginning of August, it was only the second time she’d ever responded to an ursine issue.
“He was enjoying himself,” she says. “He played with a pool noodle and a squirt gun toy, and when he was done, believe it or not, he went over to the filter and dumped it out. It was like he was saying, ‘Thanks for letting me use the pool, I’ll clean out my bear fur.’”
A black bear was spotted in Northeast Washington on June 9. (Video: Reuters)
Elsewhere in Massachusetts, a black bear took down a deer in a backyard — and was disappointed to find it was just a lawn ornament. A homeowner in Upstate New York filmed a bear jumping on her kids’ trampoline. The California Department of Fish & Wildlife responded to a bear taking a dip in a Burbank hot tub, and a Pennsylvania man recently went viral for calmly shooing a bear off his patio (and getting swatted in the process).
Still, black bears are such an uncommon sight in Hingham that Badger had to ask more than one person to stop following her police car around in hopes of spotting the animal.
“We see them in the western part of the state,” she says, “but they’re starting to branch out and coming closer and closer to the east coast of Massachusetts.” The state’s bear population has grown rapidly: Conservation organization Mass Audubon estimates an increase of roughly 8 percent a year.
In fact, black bear populations across the country have risen dramatically over the last 50 years. And while that’s very good news from a conservation standpoint, more bears also mean more run-ins with humans.
How black bears clawed their way back
The American black bear, an omnivorous mammal with fur that actually ranges from black to shades of brown and even blonde, was once ubiquitous across much of the continent. As the United States was settled, forests were cleared and the bears’ habitat shrank. They were killed by farmers who feared for their livestock and hunted for their thick fat, which produces an oil useful for cooking, waterproofing and skin care. By the mid-20th century, numbers had dwindled, and they were listed as endangered in several states.
Restoration programs began in earnest in the 1970s. Hunting seasons and limits were established, and state-funded research programs helped inform management practices. Previously cleared areas were reforested, and the bears made a remarkable comeback.
“There are now more American black bears than there are all other bear species in the entire world, combined,” says Andrew Tri, bear project leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
As a result, bears are moving into areas they haven’t frequented for, in some cases, centuries. “We have bears throughout Massachusetts, and that didn’t used to be the case,” Tri says. “We have bears showing up in Ohio, in western Minnesota and pushing out into the Dakotas. There are recovering bear populations in Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana.”
Black bear on the side of the road. (iStock)
It’s not just legal protections and habitat restoration that’s helped the bears. There’s also been a big shift, Tri says, in human tolerance. “We realize that we can coexist with bears,” he says.
Hannah Seilhan has lived in her home in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in California’s Los Angeles County for seven years. For most of that time, the backyard wildlife was limited to birds and small mammals. But two summers ago, as she headed out to pick tomatoes, a large, cinnamon-colored bear stopped her in her tracks.
“He was hiding behind my garage. I saw him and he saw me and I just backed up slowly and went in the house,” Seilhan says. Now, bears are a common sight in the yard. They show up in the morning to laze beneath her fruit trees and munch on fallen figs, avocados and persimmons. “At first I just let them be because we’re very live-and-let-live, and we love to see them,” she says. “But this year they’ve been trying to break into the house.”
Seilhan called game wardens after a female bear tried twice to break down a crawl space door. The officers suggested she place a bowl of ammonia in the crawl space; bears have an intensely keen sense of smell and are put off by the odor. While that seems to have done the trick, Seilhan has become one of a growing number of Americans tasked with deterring bears from their property.
Being bear aware
While black bears are generally not aggressive, they can cause property damage or injure people and pets if threatened. “Human-bear conflicts are caused by unsecured attractants,” Tri says. He works with BearWise, a multistate agency program developed by bear biologists to educate people about coexisting with bears.
“Folks can do the ‘BearWise Basics,’” he says. “Those are: Never feed or approach bears. Secure your food, garbage and recycling. Remove your bird feeders when bears are active. Don’t leave your pet food outside. Clean and store grills or smokers, and alert your neighbors to bear activity so they can take the same steps.”
While black bears are active from the late spring through autumn, right now they may be particularly likely to enter human properties, lured by trash or another food source. As they prepare for winter, Tri says, black bears in much of the country enter a stage called hyperphagia, where they need as many as 20,000 calories per day.
Black bear in a backyard. (iStock)
Even if you’ve removed attractants, it’s possible a curious bear may end up in your yard. In that case, Tri says, there are a few ways to stay safe. “First, bears and dogs don’t mix,” he says. “When you’re letting your dog out at night, flip on the lights and check your yard.” If you do see a bear, stay at a safe distance and shout. “Make yourself big and loud,” Tri says. “Don’t run. And if you see the bear before it sees you, stand still and take a moment to enjoy. You don’t want to surprise a bear, and seeing one is a pretty cool thing, though admittedly, it can be scary the first couple times.”
While many residents of Hingham, Mass., found their bear’s visit delightfully novel, Badger says there was also a contingent who felt differently. “We got calls from people saying it needed to be hunted down, removed or relocated,” she says. “It can certainly be unnerving or frightening for someone who doesn’t expect to be in bear country.”
Tri says he sometimes fields similar calls, and much of his work is centered on teaching people how to live alongside the animals. “Finding some sort of common ground is really important, and it’s incumbent on humans to take that role because a bear’s just being a bear. The human footprint is growing, and bear populations and range are expanding,” he says. “Basically, if it’s not bear country now, there’s a good chance it will be soon.”
Kate Morgan is a freelance writer in Richland, Pa.