MONTPELIER -- Wildlife officials say they are trying to figure out how to cope with a growing problem in the state: black bears wandering into roadways and being struck by vehicles.
Game Warden Sean Fowler, who responded to such an accident this past week on U.S. Route 2 in Marshfield, said the crashes are becoming more common. In that case, the 120-pound male bear died and the vehicle that hit it had left the scene by the time the officer arrived.
"It's going to happen with more regularity because the bear population is higher than it's ever been," Fowler said.
Mark Scott, director of wildlife for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, said Vermont's black bear population has roughly doubled since the 1980s, to more than 6,000 today.
Figures kept by the department's law enforcement division show collisions between bears and vehicles are on the rise. From 2005 to 2007, an average of 42 bears a year were struck and killed by vehicles. From 2010 to 2012, the average was 60 each year.
Scott and Fowler say there's also a growing problem of bears approaching roadsides and human settlements in search of food. Items including backyard bird feeders and trash cans present a rich opportunity for hungry bears.
Bears will stay in deep woods and at higher elevations if ample food supply is in those areas, Scott said. The number of bears struck by vehicles dropped from 80 in 2010 to 43 in 2011. The latter year was unusually strong in its availability of beechnuts and various berries in the woods, he said.
Scott said Vermont is on the verge of exceeding its optimally sized bear population and is taking steps to slow both its growth and bears' encounters with humans.
To slow growth, the state is expanding its bear-hunting season.
Vermont hunters traditionally were permitted to shoot one bear during part of the state's 16-day season for hunting deer bucks in November. Under rules recently issued by the department, one bear will still be the limit, but the time period they may be hunted broadens -- it will run from Sept. 1 through Nov. 24.
A new law passed this year also bans the intentional feeding of bears. A key goal is keeping bears in the wild and away from people's homes, Scott said.