Could a black bear make it all the way east to coastal Massachusetts?
State officials say it's not out of the question but have been unable to confirm the existence of a black bear in Wompatuck State Park following a report to that effect made to state emergency management officials Oct. 11.
State environmental police and park rangers have spent time this month in the state park that covers parts of Cohasset, Hingham and Norwell, investigating the reported sighting of a bear and a cub. They did not see any bears or any signs that bears have been there, a spokeswoman said.
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"We don't know if there's a bear in Hingham," Marion Larson, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, told the News Service last week after the Cohasset Mariner included in its police report an item about an individual who called to report a bear sighting.
Bears, which usually flee when they see people, have been spotted in recent years as far east as Brookline, Newton, Sharon, Easton and Foxborough and as far south as Middleborough and Cape Cod. They are hard to miss. In Massachusetts, the brown muzzled-mammals average 230 pounds for males and 140 pounds for females. They range in length from 3.5 to 6 feet.
The state's growing black bear population means bears and humans are more likely to encounter each other. There were only about 100 black bears in Massachusetts in the 1970s. That number grew to 1,000 by the 1990s and is up to about 4,500 today, according to MassWildlife estimates.
Bears are fairly common in western Massachusetts, northern Middlesex County and Worcester County. But they are expanding into the Route 495 corridor, where young male bears have periodically sparked 911 calls from residents unaccustomed to seeing bears. According to the state, as the population grows, "breeding females will continue to move east, thus reestablishing historic breeding bear range in many eastern parts of Massachusetts."
"We are fully expecting that there could be some inside 495 as the expansion is coming east," Larson said.
At this time of year, bears are trying to fatten up before hibernating for the winter. "They're definitely out and about and looking for food," said Larson. Residents should not use bird feeders or leave household trash unsecured outdoors - doing so can attract bears, and in turn bears may lose their natural fear of humans, she said.
State officials say it's important for people to be educated about bears, which have good eyesight and hearing and an excellent sense of smell and long-term memory. Officials say the risk of being attacked is very low.
Here's what MassWildlife says about attack risks: "In the vast majority of cases, Black Bears are not fierce. If approached by a human, their first response is usually to flee. In fact, in a wooded area, bears often disappear long before they are seen. Black Bears rarely harm people, although defensive attacks can occur when people tease or closely approach bears in parks or campgrounds or if bears are startled at close range. Female Black Bears defend their cubs by sending them up a tree. Sows may huff and blow and make short rushes at people who get near the cubs. Deliberate predatory attacks are extremely rare, but have occurred in other states."
MassWildlife hosts a website featuring a video and fact sheets about bears, and advice for anyone who sees a bear in their neighborhood: "A bear's first response to something unusual is to leave. If a bear is feeding in an area where it doesn't belong, such as your yard, on a porch, or in a dumpster, step outside, yell, and make lots of noise. The bear will usually leave - accompanied by its young. Habituated bears may ignore minor harassment. If you continue to see bears, check your property and remove any potential food sources."
The agency also has advice for people who encounter a bear in the woods: "Black bears are usually wary of people. Normal trail noise will alert bears to your presence and they will often disappear before you see them. If you see a bear, it may not immediately recognize you as a human and may be curious until it scents you. Make the animal aware of your presence by clapping, talking, or making other sounds while slowly backing away. Do not approach bears or intrude between a female bear and her cubs. Keep dogs leashed and stay a respectful distance away."