Black Bears in Massachusetts
Natural History, Distribution, and Status
The American black bear is a large-bodied, shaggy-haired mammal with small eyes, rounded ears, and short tail. In eastern North America, these bears are typically black overall with a brown muzzle and sometimes a white chest patch. Brown, cinnamon, and other color phases occur elsewhere. Their feet are large and well padded, with moderately-sized curved claws. The bear population has grown from about 100 in the early 1970s to about 3000 in 2005, in response to increased legal protection, changes in forest structure and composition, and increased availability of supplemental fall foods. Male black bears generally range in weight from 130 to 600 lbs. and females from 100 to 400. In Massachusetts, males averaged 230 lbs. and females 140. Lengths range from 3½ to 6 feet and shoulder height from 2½ to 3½ feet.
Black bears have good eyesight and hearing and have an extraordinary sense of smell which is used to locate food and recognize potential danger. They are excellent climbers and commonly use trees for resting and escape cover and to protect their young.
Black bears mate between mid-June and mid-July. The dominant male will breed several females. After breeding, the fertilized egg develops into a minute ball of cells ("blastocyst") which remains free-floating in the uterus for several months. If the female is well-nourished, the blastocyst implants in the uterine wall in late November and the small feeble cubs are born in the den in mid- to late January. Litter sizes range from 1 to 4 cubs, usually 2 or 3 in Massachusetts. Cubs exit the den in early to mid-April and remain with the mother for about 17 months, at which time she comes into estrus again and chases the yearling bears away. The young females typically take up residence near their mother's area but the young males disperse many miles. Females typically first give birth at 3 or 4 years, but this may occur later in northern boreal forests where food is scarce.
Massachusetts bears are typically active in daytime during spring and fall, but are more active during dawn and dusk hours in summer. Males may be nocturnal during the breeding season. Typical spring habitats in Massachusetts include wetlands with lush emergent vegetation and hardwood areas with leftover nuts from the previous fall. In summer, wetlands and cutover areas with emerging berry crops are preferred. Corn fields and oak, beech, or hickory stands are favored in fall. Bears have good long-term memory and are capable of recalling the location of periodic food sources years after the first visit.
In Massachusetts, adult females use home ranges averaging 9 to 10 mi² while adult males may have ranges exceeding 120 mi². Depending on food availability, Massachusetts bears enter the den between mid-November and early December and exit between early March and mid-April. Pregnant females often enter early and those with newborn cubs exit late. Bears commonly den in brush piles, under fallen trees or a jumble of rocks, or in a mountain laurel thicket.
Despite popular belief, black bears are not fierce. Their first response is usually to flee and in woodland areas the bears may disappear long before they are seen. Black bears sometimes can become habituated to human presence and conditioned to human food sources. These circumstances may then lead to damage or depredations which have unfortunate consequences if people then destroy the bear out of fear or to alleviate the damage. Black bears rarely harm people, although minor defensive attacks can occur when people tease or closely approach bears in parks or campgrounds. Female black bears defend their cubs by putting them up a tree. The sows may huff and blow and make short rushes at people who get near the cubs, but will almost never press home an attack. Deliberate predatory attacks are very rare and typically occur in remote areas.
American black bears are found in most of Canada south of the tree line and still occupy 85% of their original range there. They are found in 43 states and are abundant or common in 29 of them. Black bears have recently reoccupied much of their original range in the U.S., especially in the east, and their status is generally favorable. They are still uncommon in parts of the midwest. Black bears are endangered in Mexico. In Massachusetts, black bears have been increasing in numbers and distribution for the past 30 years. They are common in western Massachusetts, moderately common in the central region, and rare or absent in the eastern counties.
For more information, see the "Frequently Asked Questions" on black bear biology, management and status.
Preventing Conflicts With Bears
Do Not Feed Bears!
Keep the "wild" in "wildlife". Never deliberately feed bears to attract them to your property. Bears which become accustomed to humans and dependent on human-associated foods are likely to cause property damage and become a nuisance. The bear is then placed in jeopardy if you or your neighbors become afraid of it or seek to protect their property. Some towns may have municipal bylaws which prohibit the feeding of certain wildlife.
Remove or Secure all Potential Food Sources
Don't tempt bears by providing foods within easy reach. Take down bird feeders-especially those containing suet or sunflower seed-by April 1 and don't replace them until December 1. Birds will be fine without supplemental feeding once spring arrives. Clean up spilled seed. Although some feeders can be "bear-proofed", bears will still be attracted by scent or by spilled seed. You can attract birds for your enjoyment by planting a flower garden, providing a dusting site, and maintaining nesing boxes and a bird bath.
Be sure that all pet foods are consumed at a single feeding and not left in the dish. Do not leave pet food or dirty dishes outside at night.
Store all garbage in closed containers in a secure garage or inside location. Small amounts of garbage may be frozen and then placed in trash cans just before pickup. Bears may still be attracted by the smell even if they can't get to the garbage. Double bags or sprinkling with ammonia will help reduce odors. Your town's solid waste committee or neighborhood coalition may want to discuss waste management with your waste disposal contractor and require bear-proofing as a condition of the contract.
Do not leave your garbage cans outside overnight. Put them by the roadside
just before pickup. Dogs, coyotes, raccoons, and other animals will
tip over and scatter garbage, as well as bears. Wash and rinse cans
regularly. Clean greasy barbecues and picnic grills after using them.
Do not leave food scraps or spilled grease in your yard.
Do not place meat scraps, fruit remnants, or sweet materials in your compost pile. Bears will be attracted to these items.
Protect Your Bees
Use temporary or permanent electric fences to safeguard your hives.
Be sure to keep weeds from shorting out the fence. Regularly maintain
the chargers or batteries. Do not place fences next to trees which the
bears can climb and then jump down inside the fence.
Keep open, mowed areas on all sides around the hives. Do not locate hives in abandoned areas or close to wooded overgrown areas where bears have pathways to the hives.
Do not place supplemental foods nearby as a distraction. This will attract or habituate bears and will be counterproductive.
Protect Your Row Crops and Orchards
Temporary electric fencing may be used to protect corn and other crops. Be sure to maintain the fencing and chargers or batteries. Place bacon strips on the fence to enhance shocking ability when bears contact the fence. Seven-strand slanted non-electric fences have been used to keep bears out of orchards.
Noisemakers, such as propane cannons, may be effective in some circumstances, but the bears may become used to them or simply move to another field.
Keep open, mowed areas on all sides around the crops. When possible, cut back the vegetation on wooded overgrown gullies where bears have pathways to the hives.
Alternate corn with other row crops to provide less food and cover.
Contact local bear hunters to utilize the early September bear season to hunt in your fields during bear season.
In some instances, houndsmen may be given a permit to use bear hounds to chase bears away from crops they are damaging. However, the relief may be temporary.
Protect Your Livestock
Avoid pasturing animals in remote areas, areas with nearby heavy wooded cover, or areas with wooded gullies or other pathways which bears may use.
Do not leave carcasses of dead animals exposed in fields, pastures or nearby areas. Bury them deeply or incinerate them.
When possible, pen the livestock in or near the barn at night, especially pregnant females or those with small young. Avoid field birthing if possible, or, clean areas to remove afterbirths.
Do not place supplemental foods nearby as a distraction. This will attract or habituate bears and will be counterproductive.
Consider the use of guard animals if you have a large or valuable livestock operation.
When Camping in Bear Country, Store all Foods and Food Wastes Properly
Don't cook, eat, or store food in your tent, camp trailer, or
lean-to. Avoid cooking next to your tent or trailer where odors may
Do not dispose of food scraps, grease, or other edibles in your campfire. These materials may not be completely burned, or the scent of burned food may attract bears.
Store food only in bear-proof containers or hung high on sturdy poles
or on wires strung between 2 trees. Don't deliberately feed bears
or leave food items or picnic coolers out when away from the campsite.
Be careful if storing food in your vehicle. Some bears may be able to break a window, tear open convertible tops, or otherwise gain entry. Even if unsuccessful, the bear's attempts may scratch or otherwise damage your vehicle.
Do not approach bears in the wild. Bears will usually flee from people and move away silently. If you approach from downwind, a bear may not immediately recognize you as a human and may be curious until it scents you. Make the animal aware of you by clapping, talking, or making other sounds.
Do not intrude between a female bear and her cubs. Black bears almost never attack in defense of cubs, but your continued presence may be stressful to the animal. Don't assume that unaccompanied cubs are abandoned and handle or capture them. The mother is likely to be nearby and will return for them.
Unless absolutely necessary, do not throw food items, packs, or other items to decoy bears which may approach you. This action teaches the bear how to get people to give food items to it.
Black bears will sometimes "bluff-charge" people when they are attempting to protect or raid a food source, when cornered or threatened, or when courting or mating. Do not run or crouch down but stand your ground and then move slowly away.
Keep dogs under control!
Different strategies may prevail if you are hiking, camping, or working in remote areas outside Massachusetts. Predatory attacks by black bears are very rare but have occurred in Alaska, Canada, and rarely elsewhere. Read Stephen Herrero's book "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance" (Rev. ed., 2002, Lyons Press) and the Northwest Territories "Safety in Bear Country" handbook to understand bear behavior and how to protect yourself in these situations.
When A Bear Is Reported In a Neighborhood
Local and State Police Departments---If a bear is sighted in town, advise callers to leave the animal alone. Remind pet owners to keep their dogs under control. Keep crowds away and avoid following the animal. Pursuit not only stresses the animal but it adds the risk of having a bear chased out into traffic or into a group of bystanders. In most situations, the animal will fade back into the forest.
If your situation involves a bear in a densely populated area, contact the Environmental Police Radio Room at 1/800-632-8075 (24 hours) or the nearest MassWildlife office on week days during business hours to activate the Large Animal Response Team. Team members will be paged through the Radio Room and will contact your department to assess the situation.
To protect the lives of people and wildlife, MassWildlife and the Environmental Police formed an interagency Large Animal Response Team (LART) to respond to situations where bear are discovered in heavily human populated areas. The team members consist of MassWildlife biologists and Environmental Police Officers with specific training in chemical immobilization of large animals, primarily bear and moose.
Municipalities and other law enforcement agencies can activate this team by calling the 24 hour Environmental Police Radio Room at 1/800-632-8075 or calling the closest MassWildlife offices during business hours. Depending on the situation, members of the team will provide anything from technical advice to responding to the scene. If it's determined the LAR Team needs to be at the scene, members will be paged and they will coordinate efforts with local/state police, animal control officers, MassHighways and local public works departments to ensure safety for the public as well as the animal involved.
There are 4 options available to wildlife professionals when dealing with suburban or urban bear situations.
- Keeping tabs on the animal from a distance, or "baby-sitting" as it is sometimes called, is often all that is needed to allow the bear to move on. Usually the job becomes more public relations than public safety as officers try to keep people away from the bear.
- Trying to encourage the bear to go in a specific direction by using hazing techniques.
- If the animal becomes confined to tree, chemical immobilants may be used if the situation warrants this action. Trained staff from MassWildlife and/or the Environmental Police will be on hand to exercise this option.
- The last resort, when an immediate threat to public safety exists, is to destroy the bear with a firearm. This is rarely used as an option.
For more detail see the "Frequently Asked Questions" on black bear problems and control.
"Co-existing with Black Bears in Massachusetts: Guidelines for the Prevention and Management of Bear Damage". This is a PDF document and you will need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view it.
For additional information and advice on black bear management, problems, and damage control strategies in Massachusetts, contact your local MassWildlife District office.