MONTPELIER — Recent warm weather and melting snow have triggered black bears to leave their winter dens early this year in search of food.
The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department on Monday recommended that homeowners take down bird feeders and other sources of food that could attract the hungry animals. Aside from the feeders, bears might also be attracted to pet food, barbecue grills, garbage, open trash bins and campsites with accessible food and food waste.
The male bears are coming out of their dens about two weeks earlier than last year and after a winter with little snow that left their dens exposed to coyotes and elements including rain, according to Forrest Hammond, the department's bear biologist. That required the bears to use more energy to stay warm, he said.
"Most of the bears weren't comfortable this winter, I'm pretty sure of that," Hammond said.
Spring is often a tough time for bears because of the lack of food.
An abundance of nuts and apples last fall meant the bears were well fed going into winter. Beech nuts will still be available as the bears emerge from hibernation, but Fish and Wildlife officials expect bears that found food in backyards last summer or fall could return there.
Female bears that had cubs while in their dens can't yet leave them to seek food because they're too young.
"What we don't know ... is whether or not a winter like that affects cub survival," said Hammond, who expects females with cubs to emerge from winter dens sometime in April.
Purposely feeding a bear is illegal in Vermont to protect bears and people. Officials say intentionally feeding bears causes them to change their food-seeking behavior and return to that human food source, seek food at other homes and become more bold each time they do so, possibly causing property damage.
– The Associated Press