MIDDLEBURY — It’s often the comic relief segment in a TV wildlife documentary: Curious, affable bear pokes snout into honeycomb; long, pink tongue darts out to scarf up some honey; angry bees send the irrepressible fur ball lumbering back into the woods.
But in most cases, it’s not a laughing matter when a wild, hungry bear strays into civilization.
Just ask Middlebury’s Charles Mraz, who recently experienced the latest in a growing number of local brushes with what Vermont wildlife exerts said is a rapidly growing bear population.
“It was a rare thing in the Champlain Valley to have bears in your bees,” said Mraz, whose family has owned and operated Champlain Valley Apiaries since 1931.
“But in the past four to five years, things have changed dramatically.”
Mraz this past Mother’s Day reluctantly destroyed a bear that had plowed through the apiary behind his family’s home off Springside Road, a well-populated neighborhood on Middlebury’s Chipman Hill that is only a half mile from the town green. Mraz’s 12-year-old daughter had spotted the young male bear that evening as it waited to see if someone was going to replenish the honey he had devoured earlier that day.
“My daughter said, ‘Daddy, are those eyes?’” Mraz recalled of his daughter spotting two gleaming orbs piercing through the darkness in the back yard.
At first, Mraz dismissed the two dots as faraway house lights. But with the aid of a flashlight, he was able to confirm it was a bear.
With permission from state officials, he grabbed his deer rifle, waiting for the animal to stand at an angle that presented him with a safe shot, and squeezed the trigger.
The bear turned and ran, with Mraz in cautious pursuit.
“I couldn’t find any blood or hair,” Mraz said of his efforts to pick up the bear’s trail.
Then he heard it — something that sounded like a “woooof” reverberating in a 55-gallon drum. Mraz looked above and saw the bear looking down at him from a walnut tree. He dispatched the bear, which otherwise would likely have remained a nuisance and threat in the area, according to state officials.
“He was probably pushed out of his territory and into Middlebury,” said Mraz, who dressed the bear — an almost 200-pound male — to give away the meat.
“He was pretty bold.”
That’s bad news for Vermont residential neighborhoods that are increasingly at risk of seeing bears, according to Vermont Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry, who is a Middlebury resident. He explained the state would ideally like to maintain a population of around 4,000 black bears. The current population is estimated at 5,500 to 6,200.
Nuisance bear complaints have more than tripled during the past two years, according to Berry. He added the number of nuisance bears killed is usually 12-18 in a year; there were around 40 such bears killed last year.
Some recent mild winters have helped sustain and grow the state’s bear population, according to state officials.
“We do rely on hunters to manage the deer population,” Berry said. “It may be that not as many hunters are targeting bears.”
Whatever the reason, bears have been wandering from the hilly, forested areas and into the Champlain Valley. They have also been increasingly straying west of the Route 7 corridor, according to George Scribner, an Addison County game warden.
“There have been more sightings and complaints all the way to Lake Champlain,” Scribner said. “And we have seen an increase in complaints.”
Scribner believes the recent dry weather has limited some of the bears’ food reserves in the wild, prompting them to scour low-lying areas and backyards for garbage scraps, chicken coops, bird feed and honey.
Berry is aware of, and concerned about, the bear incident at the Mraz property.
“Here you’ve got a bear two blocks from downtown (Middlebury),” said Berry, who stressed that Mraz handled the incident properly. While reports of bears attacking Vermonters have been rare over the years, Berry wants people to reduce their exposure to potential attacks. That means making sure garbage cans are secured and preferably locked indoors and that poultry and other temptations are enclosed by a fence or otherwise safeguarded. Unfortunately for wild bird enthusiasts, it means taking down the feeders.
“The reality is, when you have nuisance bears, it’s not a bear problem, it’s a people problem,” Berry said. “As the bear population expands and gets closer to people, we need to learn better ways to live with them.”
And it’s not as simple as capturing and relocating the bear, according to Berry.
“Once the bear becomes habituated to eating around people, there’s really no place in Vermont you can put them where they’re not going to find somebody else’s house,” Berry said. “You’re simply moving the problem around.”
It’s a problem that Vermonters are going to have to confront this year because of a new state law that will take effect on July 1. The law prohibits people from intentionally feeding bears and requires residents to make a “reasonable effort” to protect their property before being granted permission to take a nuisance bear. Protecting the property means making it undesirable to bears by removing/fencing off potential food temptations.
Mraz has erected fences at several of Champlain Valley Apiaries’ 30 bee colonies. And erecting a fence is not cheap, he noted. It can cost well over $500, in addition to labor and annual maintenance expenses, he noted.
“You can’t put fences everywhere,” he added of the challenging terrain on which some apiaries are sited.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.