PORTLAND, MAINE >> New England's bears are pawing through the region's birdfeeders, garbage cans and backyard grills because of dry weather that has caused a scarcity of the berries and other plants they like to eat in the woods.
Maine has the largest black bear population in the eastern U.S., and complaints of nuisance bears have shot up. The Maine Warden Service reported in mid-June that it had already received more than 200 complaints, a year after it received about 400 in all of 2015.
Wildlife officials in New Hampshire and Vermont have also advised residents to take precautions, and bear sightings are on the rise in Connecticut.
Brian Fauth, of South Portland, one of Maine's most densely populated cities, is in the market for a new backyard shepherd's hook after a bear bent his in half to get a better angle into his birdfeeder a week ago. He said he's happy to share birdseed, but would rather not have a 300-pound animal in his backyard.
"It was definitely cool to see, but not something I want sticking around," said Fauth, who has not refilled his birdfeeder since. "We're used to seeing woodchucks and squirrels in the yard."
June is typically the busiest month for nuisance bear complaints, and residents need to be wary until more rainfall arrives and helps grow natural food, Maine's wildlife department said. In New Hampshire, wildlife biologist Mark Ellingwood said the same scenario is playing out.
"This is shaping up to be a high year in terms of bear activity, particularly in comparison to last year," Ellingwood said. "If we have poor food production, then we have bears in communities looking for food."
In Vermont, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has received 142 bear complaints so far, compared with 51 for all of last year. The department is continuing to urge people to take down bird feeders. Birds don't need feeding during the summer and the feeders can create problem bears that then have to be destroyed, said Vermont bear Biologist Forrest Hammond.
"It's not a ton of bears that are causing the problems," said Hammond. "What it is, is a number of bears, a small percentage of our bears, that are trying to get human foods and they are continuing to do that."
Connecticut bear sightings since July 2015 total nearly 5,500 — about 1,000 more than were reported in the 2015 calendar year.
New England's bears can't get too comfortable. Maine's hunting season starts Aug. 29, and hunters will start laying bait for the animals in about a month. State wildlife biologists have said the use of bait is necessary so hunters can help prevent the bear population from growing out of control.
But some animal welfare advocates have said the use of baiting for bears with human food, such as doughnuts, has habituated them to human food and human smells. Use of bear bait is legal in at least 13 states, including Maine and New Hampshire, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
"Stop feeding bears human foods, and bears will be less inclined to come around human places," said Daryl DeJoy, of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine. "Where there's food is where bears go."