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By Eric Weld   Date: 11/10/08

Was That a Bear on Campus?

From a distance, they can look cute and cuddly. They climb the trees around campus, amble through parking lots and attract the curious ogles of staff, faculty and students.

A recent spate of black bear sightings on and around campus has inspired impromptu photos and intrigued conversations both in person and online.

Bear on Campus:

Last week, a black bear drew a crowd of spectators in the parking lot behind the Alumnae House...

...relaxing in a tree...

...and ambling between the cars (photos courtesy of Barbara Pliska).

“Saw a bear 15 minutes ago by Lamont house, kinda small, black,” remarked one person in a popular electronic social forum on Nov. 6 at 8:43 a.m. “Yeah, there was a bear behind Albright House!” came a response at 1:43 p.m. And finally: “Aww, black bears are cute.”

Cute, yes, from a distance. And these black bears hardly pose a threat to people, assures Ralph Taylor, manager of the Connecticut Valley District of Massachusetts Wildlife in Belchertown, an office within the state Department of Fish and Game.

“Black bears are pretty much benign,” said Taylor, “and very unlikely to attack humans. However, at the same time, they are unpredictable, so use caution around and near them. Keep your distance and try not to get trapped.”

Taylor estimates there are more than two dozen bears living in Northampton, an unusually high number that has likely grown in recent years because of human behavior. As the popularity of installing bird feeders and distributing birdseed has increased during the past two decades, the population of bears has exploded, he said. Black bears are especially fond of the black sunflower seeds common in birdfeeders, said Taylor, because they are coated with a tasty and nutritious animal product.

“We have so many bears in Northampton,” he said. “They’re attracted by bird feeders, and they have become a trained population. They’ve learned when people leave for work and when they return, so that between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. you’re more likely to see them wandering around.”

Barbara Pliska, manager of the Computer Store in Stoddard Hall, joined about two dozen other onlookers one morning last week to observe a bear in a tree in the garden behind the Alumnae House.

“It was so fascinating watching the bear,” she said. “This was the closest I’ve ever been to a bear in the wild. It was amazing to watch this beautiful animal.”

“Public safety has been notified about a few bear sightings on campus,” said Paul Ominsky, director of public safety. “So far, they have evaded officers. If we do spot one, we attempt to keep people out of the area until the bear ambles elsewhere.”

Though the bear count has been up across the state in recent years, according to Taylor, officials have no reason to intervene, by trapping or destroying the animals, for example. The bears have not proven to be a threat to humans or animals, he emphasized.

Massachusetts Wildlife has affixed radio-transmitting collars on six bears in Northampton to keep track of their habitat and activities, he said. And the state’s hunting season was extended this fall due to the number of bear sightings, but that does not have an impact on the population of bears in town.

Finally, Taylor said, the onset of winter may not curtail the bear population because the animals have no need to den and sleep through the season as long as food is plentiful, as the bears seem to have discovered in Northampton.

So the bear sightings on campus will likely continue—good news, perhaps, for those who find them cute.

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