Vermont’s bear population hits a 5-year high

A bear biting a bird feeder.
A bear bites a bird feeder. Photo courtesy of Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department

The number of black bears in Vermont has reached a five-year high, according to new data released by the Fish & Wildlife Department.

The 2022 population of the state’s only bear species is estimated at 7,000 to 8,500, spread throughout the state except for the Lake Champlain Islands, the department found. The figure lags one year behind the current year, as the population model relies on annual data from hunters.

According to Jaclyn Comeau, black bear project leader and wildlife biologist with the department, the bear population fluctuates as part of a five-year cycle of growth and decline due to factors such as reproductive cycles, food availability and vehicle collisions. However, she says, the bear population has remained relatively stable since the 1990s, generally ranging in size from around 4,000 to 7,500 in consistent cycles.

“There’s a lot of variability that’s driven by their ecology, their behavior and natural food availability, and those factors can also influence the hunters’ harvest each year,” Comeau said in an interview. “All of these factors playing together, we believe, is what has been kind of keeping the population in check. As the population gets to these larger numbers, usually you’re going to see more bears harvested and you’re going to see more bears killed crossing roads.”

Vermont’s robust population of black bears today lies in stark contrast to the early 1970s, when they were found only in mountainous areas of the state and in the Northeast Kingdom and likely numbered between 1,500 and 3,500.

A black bear in the woods.
A black bear is seen in the woods in Vermont. Photo by Jacob Zorn/Courtesy of Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.

The decline in the state’s bear population began much earlier than the 1970s, according to Comeau, who dated it back to when European settlers converted much of the landscape from forests to agricultural land. This, coupled with a fairly unrestricted ability to hunt the animals, drove the bears into remote and mountainous areas.

The bear’s population recovery followed farm abandonment — which allowed land to grow back into forests — and the establishment of sustainable hunting regulations.

“We really do feel like, overall, it’s a huge conservation success story to now see that we have bears distributed throughout most of the reaches of Vermont again,” Comeau said.

With an increased bear population, though, generally comes greater human interaction with the creatures.

An uptick in bear sightings in more densely populated parts of the state prompted the department to issue a press release over the summer, calling it “a dangerous situation for these bears and for people.” In South Burlington alone, Vermont Fish & Wildlife has already received 24 bear incident reports through its web reporting form this year, compared to just three in 2022.

Comeau suggested greater public awareness of the reporting form might be contributing to the increase in reports. She also noted that many of the sightings were traced to a mother and her two cubs, who also sometimes cross the line into Shelburne. 

“As more bears are born, they’re dispersing, trying to find a new place to set up a home range,” Comeau said. “As they look around for places with food available and maybe less pressure from already established bears, it puts them in contact with places like the greater Burlington area. … If there’s enough human food in those places — despite all the busy roads and the lack of big woods — some bears will choose to stay.”

A black bear walking on a wooden deck.
The number of black bears in Vermont has reached a five-year high. Photo courtesy of Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department

“We are getting consistent reports from the greater Burlington area for the past two to three years now in a way that we weren’t five years ago,” Comeau said.

She also noted that black bear sightings are being reported in Essex and Essex Junction as well.

“Yes, it is an indication that the distribution of our population really is pushing at the boundaries of where it used to be,” she said. The bear incidents “are definitely related to the size of the bear population. But they’re also related to the fact that we have way too many bird feeders out and we haven’t figured out good ways to store our garbage.”

The leading cause of bear conflicts, according to the department, are unsecured food sources such as trash containers or bird feeders, which teach bears to associate people with easy access to food.

A black bear standing in the grass.
A black bear is seen in the woods in Vermont. Photo by John Hall/Courtesy of Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department

Fish & Wildlife’s 2020-2030 black bear management plan suggests that Vermont’s mandated composting law could also — at least temporarily — increase bear problems statewide.

The 2020 law banned residential food scraps from landfills, but didn’t require people to use bear-proof food scrap containers for their compost. The plan notes that there has already been an increase in reports of bears damaging compost structures. 

According to the department, residents can discourage bears from seeking out food in developed areas by securing garbage until collection day morning, protecting backyard chicken flocks with electric fencing, composting properly, and removing bird feeders until there is snow on the ground.

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