The following article appears in the Fall 2008 edition of Santuary, from the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Fall’s well-fed bears, by Karl Meyer

I live bear country, Franklin County, west of the Connecticut River. Rolling up into the heart of the Berkshires are the deep woods and mature nut and pine tree habitats that state biologists say are prime bear habitat. And black bears are thriving in Massachusetts, after their near extinction here in the 19th century. They’ve long since recrossed the Connecticut, swimming east. And today, though a good deal of it is sub-optimal suburban habitat, most people living beyond the crescent of Boston’s Rt. 128 again reside in towns visited by bears. Fearful of humans; largely hidden, they are out fattening up for hibernation right now.

“For bear, they be common, being a great black kind of bear which be most fierce in strawberry time, at which time they have young ones.” Thus wrote William Wood in New England’s Prospect, published in London in 1634, on the heels of his four-year New World sojourn. Residing in the fledgling settlements along today’s North Shore, of bears nearing winter, Wood observed, “Food being scant in those cold and hard times, they live only by sleeping and sucking their paws, which keepeth them as fat as they are in summer.”

And fat they must be. In late fall bears need to head to den sites with enough accumulated calories to cover the 30% of body weight that simply vanishes with the energy expended in hibernation. That fat is in large part the result of the black bear’s age-old association with nut trees: white oak, beech, red oak, hickory, and chestnut. These are the preferred fall buffet for bears. But if things get tough—if the mast crop fails as it does cyclically, black bears are wonderfully resilient. They’ll make up part of that deficit with grubs, roots, leaves, seeds, and berries, and supplement–or even substitute that lost forage with trips to isolated corn fields, orchards, or unsecured trash bins.

“Bears are omnivores,” emphasizes Massachusetts wildlife biologist Jim Cardoza, who has been the state’s Bear Project Leader since 1970, “They eat almost everything.” But wild game is rare, he says, “It’s hard for them to prey on live animals.” They do some scavenging though, and on rare occasions easy opportunities may tempt older males and they’ll prey on a penned-up goat, or get into a cage full of rabbits. Mostly it’s the nut crop they want in fall—the mast, plus wild cherry and the other succulent forest foods that Cardoza calls soft mast. “If necessary,” he notes, “they’ll eat whatever is: one, abundant; two, nutritious; and three, tastes good.”

Trackers and photographers often study bears. Ask MassWildlife photographer Bill Byrne and retired professional tracker—now turned nature photographer, Paul Rezendes, what would be heaven for a fall black bear, and their portraits nearly merge. Years of anticipating the needs of their quarry solicit these settings, “I think of a beautiful, old beech forest with some big canopies and big, old hemlocks—which are really good for cubs,” says Rezendes, “If there’s trouble the cubs and that bear can go up into the hemlocks and you’ll never see them. We’ll call that bear paradise.” Unapprised, Bill Byrne almost mirrors the image, simply adding in oaks, “A secluded oak and hemlock ridge, with a bumper crop of acorns and a scattering of beechnuts. The hemlock would provide security–I could feed undisturbed all day.”

A few decades after William Wood’s New England’s Prospect was published, a minister’s wife in Lancaster, Massachusetts was roused by a fierce attack on an icy February 10, 1676. It led to her three-month captivity among rebelling Native Americans. Mary Rowlandson lived and struggled alongside the embattled Nipmucs, Narragansetts, Wampanoags, and Pocumtucks of King Philip’s War until she was ransomed in early May. She experienced their desperate, subsistence flight from the standpoint of a virtual slave–retelling her story in The Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson, a colonial “best seller.” Rowlandson was dealt indignity, abuse and hunger–as well as unexpected kindness, while held by her captors. One turned out to be the Metacom, King Philip himself.

In early March the fat and meat of a bear, likely killed at its den, greatly fortified Rowlandson. She had met King Philip, who she could converse with in English, and did “extra” artisan labor for him and other captors—knitting, in exchange for food and small privileges. She shared a dinner with Metacom, “He asked me to make a cap for his boy, for which he invited me to dinner. I went, and he gave me a pancake, about as big as two fingers. It was made of parched wheat, beaten, and fried in bear’s grease, but I thought I never tasted pleasanter meat in my life.”

Starvation was never far off for the pastor’s wife, or the Indians. Often she was reduced to begging, and hoarding tidbits, “I was fain to go and look after something to satisfy my hunger, and going among the wigwams, I went into one and there found a squaw who showed herself very kind to me, and gave me a piece of bear. I put it into my pocket, and came home, but could not find an opportunity to broil it, for fear they would get it from me, and there it lay all that day and night in my stinking pocket.” Her treasure nearly rancid, she went back, “In the morning I went to the same squaw… I asked her to let me boil my piece of bear in her kettle, which she did, and gave me some ground nuts to eat with it: and I cannot but think how pleasant it was to me.”

Mary Rowlandson survived her ordeal; and those samplings of bear loom large in a hunger-filled memoir. Metacom and many of his people ultimately perished in their struggle for a homeland. Partly as a result, the following century saw the Massachusetts landscape wholly remade in the image of old Europe. Forests fell; fresh farms blanketed ancient woodland terrain. Wolves, beavers, bears, and wild turkeys quickly paid the price for an expanding drive for land and timber. Squirrels, cottontails, and the occasional deer, were what remained for game.

But black bears are survivors in every sense of the word. Nearly extirpated when hunters sought them in their last remaining stands, they somehow hung on in rugged Berkshire reaches into the 20th century. But even in that sheltering place they witnessed the demise of one of their ancient staples, the American chestnut. Still, in the late-1970s when New England forests were slowly reaching maturity once more, those oaks, beeches, and hickories churned out ample mast. That, along with a supply of soft mast, ants, grubs, leaves, shoots, bird’s eggs, berries, mice, frogs, and sundry other omnivorous treats, helped the bear population begin to expand.

Today, from a core population of perhaps a hundred bears three decades back, the Massachusetts black bear population is estimated at nearly 3,000 animals according to Jim Cardoza. It’s thought to be growing by 8 % annually. The densest populations remain west of the Connecticut River, but bears are now fairly common in the central part of the state. Sightings in eastern Worcester County regularly make the news.

According to fact sheets from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, average weights for Bay State bears are 140 lbs. and 230 lbs., for adult sows (females) and males (boars) respectively. These forest and swamp omnivores–basically the size of adult humans, have evolved a survival strategy that emphasizes retreat, into trees or dense cover. Untempted by the baits of human trash, bird seed, and untended food sources, they skillfully avoid human conflict. But to a bear, the scent of “grill grease” is tantamount to the mention of McDonalds to a 10 year old in a car, says Jim Cardoza. When bears develop a taste for our human food traps, they risk paying a high price as “problem” bears. The problem is that we’re baiting these animals.

Bear sightings are always remarkable. They bring people face to face with the presence of “other.” And when that other is a black bear, it usually stops an observer dead in their tracks. Most sightings are strikingly brief, recounted using terms like “big,” “small,” “lumbering,” or “scampering.” Though the largest, oldest, males may reach well over 400 lbs., most are much smaller. In the Bay State, upright black bears rarely rise to over 5-1/2 feet, and they are notorious for their response to most human intrusions: they run for cover.

Paul Rezendes knows the places where black bears run. He’s tracked them to dens, tree refuges; feeding sites. He knows their resilience—having witnessed their fall movements when food is plenty and noted their resourcefulness when its scarce, “They gravitate to whatever mast crop is producing heavily.” Rezendes says. He remembers one fall in the Savoy area where the mast crop had failed, the acorns and beech, “But there was this enormous crop of ash seeds. And the bears were climbing up in there and tearing those trees apart. I’ve never seen that before or after.” Given a choice though, Rezendes says bears seem to prefer beech nuts, “Even after the snow falls I’ve seen them digging through over a foot of snow to get to beech nuts. They probably smell them–they’ll even put off sleeping if there’s a good crop.”

Rezendes also remembers a particularly difficult fall for bears in New York State, “I used to do some tracking programs in the Catskills, and they had a mast failure there, with the oaks.” But the keen noses of bears led them to a bread bakery, where they repeatedly rifled through dumpsters, “They had a heck of time. When the mast fails, the bears start taking chances—start going places where they don’t normally go.” Bears are generally not risk-takers, they like the security of mature woods. If those woods happen to be oak, “The bears gravitate toward white oaks,” says Paul Rezendes, “If there’s lots of activity in a mixed oak area, you’ll probably find clawing and bite marks on the white oaks.” Another fall favorite is wild cherry, “They just love the stuff.”

State photographer Bill Byrne has been shooting pictures for MassWildlife for over three decades. He’s taken a lot of bear pictures in Franklin County. He’s also witnessed the seasonal diet change, from heavy foraging on late-summer blueberries to a nearly instant switch to mast—in one instance turning to acorns from red oak, “As soon as those first acorns were falling, they lost interest in the berries.“ Byrne says it’s all about getting the best pre-winter calories, “Its like how much fat can I gain before I have to sleep?” He’s witnessed other evidence of the black bear’s fall drive for calories; the signs of their foraging–they rip open paper wasp nests. “Insects are pretty high in protein.” Black bears also dig up ground wasp nests, “The bear will just open that up and expend the energy to consume the larvae. It’s not a big expenditure of energy–but it’s impressive how they’ll accept the pain of the stings.”

When mast and forage is less than optimal, these opportunists sometimes turn to other available soft “mast”: isolated cornfields. “When there is high productivity in berries, in grapes, in acorns, there’s less pressure on the corn fields,” observes Byrne, who says 90% of his observations are in Franklin County. But damage to feed corn is a regular occurrence. Many seasoned farmers just accept it as the price of doing business in bear country, telling Byrne, “I know they get my corn, so I just plant more.” It’s often the secluded fields that are hit most, he notes, “So some are planting more crops that keep an opening around the corn. They’ll seed-in alfalfa.”

Bill Byrne holds black bears in high regard. He wants people to know that conflicts with bears can be minimized if humans make good choices, “The more people can learn about them, the more they can actually protect the bears.” The photographer sees situations where people are actually putting out food to attract them, “That usually spells a death warrant for bears.” Jim Cardoza will tell you that bears have a long memory, returning season after season to check on an easy cache of sunflower seed—long after a wildlife enthusiast may have learned to take down the bird feeders between April and December. For bee farmers with hives and honey to protect, the standards for electric fencing are changing, “Some bears are learning to negotiate anything that is not hugely hot, “says Bill Byrne, “5000 volts now seems to be the standard if you’re going to protect hives. They are right up there with black angus.”

Still, with thick fall woods around, and good mast, most people won’t be encountering bears from year to year—even if they are in the neighborhood. Suburban sprawl and thoughtless human behavior will certainly be a continuing cause for difficulty as bears go about fall foraging. The American beech continues to struggle under a series of weakening plagues, and the relatively rapid loss of the eastern hemlock to the scourge of the wooly adelgid will present these shy creatures with a new security problem: the shielding branches of their favorite refuge trees are disappearing.

But, with winter approaching, it’s pleasant to contemplate this late-fall portrait, rendered by Bill Byrne. A friend had called, saying he’d discovered a bear den. It was basically the remains of an overturned tree–the base of the root ball. The two approached slowly, upwind, and watched a very large male from a distance. “It was December, there was snow on the ground,” Byrne says, “But it turned out to be a warm day, and he was dozing on top.” This bear was “sated,” Byrne recalls, “just waiting to put up the do not disturb sign.” Fascinated, they observed quietly, the photographer noting the impressive size of the head; the creature’s slow movements, “The males tend to hibernate last,” Byrne notes. But this would not be that day. As they stared, the logy bear roused a bit, “Then he turned around, like a dog, and lay down again.” For now, this bruin was just napping on top of the covers.