In the 1970s there were fewer than 100 bears in the entire state of Massachusetts. Today, there are four to five thousand of them. Talk about inflation.

For decades, nearly all of the growth in the bear population took place in the western part of the state. Not anymore.

“Bears are now expanding, have expanded, through central Massachusetts,” said Dave Wattles, Black Bear & Furbearer Project leader for MassWildlife. “The population now in Worcester County is increasing very rapidly.”

As that bear population pushes ever east, they are acclimating to more suburban and urban habitats, and coming into contact with more people. According to MassBears, a collaborative research effort of MassWildlife, the Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Amherst College, and University of Massachusetts Amherst — bears have been seen in recent years in places like Lowell, Middleborough, and Waltham to name just a few.

“A conversation I have very regularly with people is like, ‘I've lived here my entire life. I grew up here. I've never seen a bear in town,’” said Wattles. “Well, because there weren't bears in your town 50 years ago, but now there are.”

Just ask Harvard resident Gillian Kruskall.

“[I was] coming downstairs at probably about 6:30 in the morning. And I actually — just out of the corner of my eye, out the side window — saw movement and just looked over and realized there's a giant bear in the tree,” she said of an encounter she had in June 2022. “We've seen bears in the area before, but this was the first time openly in the yard, just hanging out and enjoying a nice snack.”

A large black bear is perched in the middle of a tree.
The large black bear who visited Gillian Kruskall's backyard in Harvard, Massachusetts, June, 2022
Gillian Kruskall

It is more than just snack time right now for bears in Massachusetts, who are now emerging from their long winter naps.

“Bears are driven to find food," said Wattles. “They haven't eaten anything for four to five months. So, they are extremely hungry. And for the next seven to eight months, they need to eat all the food, getting all the calories they need to survive that period when they're not going to be eating next winter.”

In early spring, nature’s best offering is something called skunk cabbage, which Wattles says is about as good as it sounds. But as more bears take up residency in more densely populated areas, they are increasingly finding more attractive alternatives in the human backyard.

“[If I’m a bear] I can go to the wetlands and get some skunk cabbage, or I can go to a backyard and get a thousand calories in one sitting, said Wattles. “It’s not an immediate public safety threat, but the big challenge we have is trying to get people to learn what they need to do around their home to coexist with bears.”

Here are Wattles' chief recommendations

Bye-Bye, bird feeder

Sorry, ornithophiles. Wattle’s number one tip is to take down those bird feeders. A large, cylindrical bird feeder filled with typical bird seed can pack thousands of calories, the equivalent of multiple large pizzas.

“There's no such thing as a bird feeder," said Wattles. “A bird feeder is a wildlife feeder. You can't control what animal is coming to that feeder. And quite often when a bear empties one, someone will fill it back up the next day.”

Three chickens are grazing within the  boundaries of their large, outdoor chicken coop, which is walled off with electric fencing. Standing outside the coop, looking at the chickens, are two men.
Dave Wattles (left) and Edgar B. Herwick III (right) assess the electric fencing that's used to protect the chickens from bears.
Robert Tokanel GBH News

Protect the birds (and the bees)

Wattles urges chicken owners to keep their coops inside electric fencing. And the same goes for beehives. He directs people to their website, which provides step-by-step instructions on how to make electric fencing more effective .

“Conflict with chickens has become the number one source of serious conflict with bears,” said Wattles. “As bears are being trained to come to backyards by bird feeders and other food sources, they're encountering chicken coops and they're learning that, oh, chickens, feed, eggs, they're all a great, easy meal.”

Grill baby, grill (and then clean it)

Bears can smell that backyard barbeque long after the feast is over. “Bears have an incredible sense of smell. Grills are something that bears can be attracted to.” Wattles recommends keeping the grate nice and clean on those charcoal grills, and keeping the grease traps empty on gas grills and smokers.

One mammal’s trash is another mammal’s food source

For residents, Wattles suggests storing garbage inside closed containers in a secure building like a garage or a shed with the doors closed and locked. For businesses or apartment complexes with dumpsters, he recommends metal tops — and keeping them closed at all times. “They'll tip over your garbage can,” said Wattles. “They can break into it if you have a latch on it.”

And with garbage collection, Wattles also advises a little procrastination. “Put it out to the curb the morning of pickup, not the night before. Otherwise, overnight, bears or other animals are going to get into it.”

Bear-proofing your home just might save a bear

“If a bear learns to try to find food around a home, it often ends up badly for the animal,” said Wattles. ”People will often tell us, ‘I don't mind having the bear in my yard or at my bird feeder.’ But your neighbor might not. Or that same bear that's now learned to find food in your yard goes across town and breaks into someone's chicken coop and the person shoots it.”

Bear encounters of the safe kind

Of course, despite our best efforts, a bear encounter is always a possibility — either in a backyard or on a hike in the woods. Wattles says bears aren’t naturally aggressive toward humans. He stressed that while bear encounters are increasingly common, instances of bears attacking or injuring humans remain exceedingly rare.

“Whether it's in your backyard or it's on a trail, give it space. If you're on a hiking trail and you see a bear, make sure it knows you're there. So, you know, talk to it in a loud voice. Raise your arms. Say, ‘Hey, bear, I'm over here’ and start backing up.”

Still, males can be upwards of 500 pounds and eight feet long. So, if you do come across one, be smart.

“It's important to remember that they are a large and powerful animal,” he said. “And so, you want to respect that. Give it space. If you see a bear, enjoy the sighting, but do it from a distance. You don't want to try to get closer to get a better picture or get a selfie.”