A black bear, believed to be a male, has been hanging around the neighborhood near Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School for a few days and climbed a tree on a residential street on Wednesday morning. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife on Wednesday has a cautionary message for people in three Maine counties: there have been “high bear conflicts” in those areas.

Jennifer Vashon, the state’s bear biologist, said the weather and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have likely increased the number of complaints during what is typically the state’s busiest month for similar problems.

“This year, I would say with the dry weather, there’s an exceptional number of calls and lower food abundance,” Vashon said. “If this dry weather continues, it’s going to impact a lot of the berry crops [which bears also feed on].”

The messages were sent out to license holders and boat-owners in Washington, Aroostook and Hancock counties due to a high number of complaints about bears, Vashon said.

The complaints didn’t come as a complete surprise.

Biologists expected a higher-than-normal number of bear complaints because the foods that bears prefer, like beechnuts, are cyclical and typically abundant during odd-numbered years and scarce during even-numbered years. That scarcity of food then sends bears searching closer to homes, where they chow down on bird seed, trash, and even poultry or livestock.

The COVID-19 pandemic may also be helping boost that number of complaints in a couple of ways, Vashon said.

A black bear, believed to be a male, has been hanging around the neighborhood near Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School for a few days and climbed a tree on a residential street on Wednesday morning. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“We definitely think COVID, with people working from home, probably has two different impacts. One, people are home, so they’re seeing things that they normally wouldn’t see in their backyards,” Vashon said. “But then, people might also be pursuing activities that they might not normally [pursue]. People might be continuing to feed birds, or starting to feed birds, who haven’t before, because they haven’t been home. And we’ve heard from some individuals who have become more interested in growing their own food with COVID, and that’s another source of attractants.”

Vashon said that while she’s been busy fielding nuisance bear complaints, the volume hasn’t been at a record level. Back in 2012, she said, the state received more than 800 bear complaints. In an average year, that number might be closer to 500. In a year with abundant natural food on the landscape, there might be just 300 complaints in a year.

This year’s total was on the high side of average the last she checked the total, she said. The exact number of bear complaints filed with the state was not immediately available.

Bears are amazing animals, but many Mainers get nervous if they get too close to their homes. Keeping bears from getting in a habit of visiting is a pretty simple thing, according to Vashon and the DIF&W: Figure out what’s drawing the bear to the area, and remove that attractant. Then, talk to your neighbors and get them to do the same thing.

In the release sent out on Wednesday, the DIF&W outlined steps that homeowners can take. Removing bird feeders, storing grills indoors, and keeping trash inside until the morning it is to be picked up are key.

Those experiencing bear problems can consult the DIF&W website for more tips. And if preventative steps aren’t working, biologists and wardens can often offer other suggestions.

Vashon cautioned, however, that the department isn’t eager to move bears across the state; trap-and-transfer operations are a last resort. Using that method can endanger the bear, and may result in shifting the problem to a new locale. Convincing homeowners to stop providing incentives in the way of food for bears is much more effective.

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...