Bears in backyards are becoming more and more common across Lehigh Valley
EASTON (AP) — The bear first left a friendly warning.
One morning in mid-May, it knocked over the garbage cans in Gary Ramunni’s driveway in rural Williams Township, dragging trash bags all the way to the woods. Two weeks later, it did it again.
“We knew, that’s not raccoons,” Ramunni said.
The second time, Ramunni warned his wife to be on the lookout for a large and hairy visitor, then left for the dentist. He hadn’t yet reached the office when his wife called him: The 400-pound black bear was in the backyard, lying leisurely on the ground and lunching on the sunflower seeds from a bird feeder it pulled down from a tree.
Ramunni has lived on Deemer Road for 23 years and never had such a visitor. He soon noticed his experience wasn’t unique.
A scroll through recent posts in the Williams Township Facebook group suggests a sudden bear takeover: In a span of a month, at least six posts reported spotting a bear cozying up to human habitats, from Texas Road to Browns Drive, some commenters reacting excitedly with sightings of their own and others with the jaded acceptance of a longtime resident.
Statistics help explain what’s happening. Pennsylvania’s black bear population has grown dramatically in the last three decades, as more farms have given way to forestland, creating more suitable habitats for bears to reproduce. Despite this, complaints about bears to the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s southeast regional office, particularly in the last five years, have gone down.
In short, people are used to bears now, state Game Warden Dustin Stoner said.
But when they encroach upon new areas, for first-timers, they’re a spectacle. When the spectacle is thrown into the social media machine and spun around a few times, things can get jumbled.
It’s very possible, Stoner said, that the pictures posted in the Williams Township community page are all of the same bear or two.
“Maybe one bear’s getting a little more attention than one bear received 10 years ago,” he said.
In the last five years, the number of new bears tagged in Lehigh and Northampton counties hasn’t been eye-catching: No more than three each year in Lehigh, and five to 10 a year in Northampton, according to Game Commission data. No more than five bears have been hunted each of those years in Lehigh, and 10-20 killed in Northampton each year.
Bear nuisance or damage complaints, meanwhile, have decreased in the Lehigh Valley. During the 2015-16 fiscal year, the Game Commission received 38 calls from Lehigh County and 69 from Northampton; last fiscal year, 25 calls came from Lehigh and 34 from Northampton.
Black bears are undoubtedly paying visits to new areas, owing to population growth and breeding season.
In the 1970s, there were an estimated 4,000 black bears in Pennsylvania, according to the Game Commission. A 2015 estimate put the population at 20,000.
Over that span, almost three times as many people have hunted bears. Last year saw a record kill of about 4,600 black bears.
Early June marks the beginning of breeding season, meaning young male bears begin venturing out in search of females in late spring.
Most of the Lehigh Valley’s bear population sticks to the Blue Mountains, Stoner said. But not all of them can coexist — older, established males run off the younger males, who wander far and wide to find new territory for mating.
Sometimes they land as far south as Montgomery and Bucks counties, he said. Last year the Game Commission caught one just outside the Philadelphia city limits.
“Fifteen years ago, that didn’t occur,” he said.
Consequently, more people are being introduced to bears — up close and personal.
Ramunni said his dentist saw an adult bear walking down the alley behind her office on Main Street in Hellertown. And in April, wardens trapped a hungry bear feasting on goodies at an Upper Mount Bethel home, then relocated it to a less populated part of the state.
Bears are also creatures of habit with an acute sense of smell. Once they sniff out food sources — like bird feeders containing fattening sunflower seeds — they are likely to return.
That’s one reason why it is illegal to intentionally feed bears in Pennsylvania.
“With every returning trip they slowly lose their fear of people, which can lead to bolder attempts at accessing food, and as time spent near people increases, so does the risk of being struck by a vehicle or becoming a more serious nuisance,” the Game Commission notes on its website.
“And, all too often, fed bears become dead bears.”
Ramunni only left his bird feeder out overnight one more time, by accident, and the next morning, it was mangled on the ground.
He keeps his garbage cans in the garage now.
“You don’t want to be surprised, and you don’t want to surprise it,” he said.
Northampton County Game Warden Brad Kreider guessed some of the bear sightings in Williams Township may be visitors who crossed the river from New Jersey just a few miles away. It’s also possible, he said, that sightings are more frequent simply because the coronavirus pandemic has kept more people home to see them.
Bears commonly cross rivers — and states — in their travels, Stoner said.
“Those bears, they don’t know political boundaries, they just swim,” Stoner said.
Once breeding season ends in mid-summer, they’ll likely retreat back to the mountains.
HOW TO KEEP BEARS AWAY
Remove bird feeders each night and store inside.
Keep trash inside and wait until immediately before pickup to place curbside.
Avoid feeding domestic pets outdoors.
Clean grills frequently and store them securely.
Consider electric fences to protect beehives, fruit trees and gardens.