BY MERYL PHAIR ’21
On Monday, Sept. 17 at 3:30 p.m., Cayley Evans ’20 was making her way along the wooded path off the Upper Lake loop at Mount Holyoke College, concentrating on an observation lab for her biology class. She was passing through a ferny area by a stream when a loud crashing noise caused her to temporarily lose her bearings.
“When I heard the crashing, the bear took off,” said Evans. “It was at least 40 to 50 feet away from me. It seemed a little small.”
The only bear species in Massachusetts is the black bear, according to Mass Audubon. “Black bears are black overall with a brown muzzle and sometimes a white chest patch.” Besides their good eyesight and hearing, bears have a powerful sense of smell which they utilize to locate food and register danger.
“I’ve always wanted to see a bear,” said Charlotte Lindblom ’22 after hearing about the bear sighting on campus. “They’re the sharks of the land.”
“Male black bears generally range in weight from 130 to 600 pounds and females from 100 to 400 pounds,” said MassWildlife, the organization responsible for the conservation of freshwater fish and wildlife in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
“[Bears] are omnivores, but the bulk of their diet is usually not live prey. Instead they eat berries, plants and dead animals. They will happily eat live, catchable animals, though, and I would imagine that young deer are probably pretty vulnerable,” said Martha Hoopes, professor of biological sciences and co-chair of the Nexus in data science at the College.
Interactions between people and bears are becoming more common as land is developed near bears’ preferred habitats, forcing them to move greater distances to find food, often in residential areas, according to MassWildlife.
“They are most likely to show up when people leave trash or open compost accessible, but they also really like bird feeders,” said Hoopes. “Friends at a gathering on Friday were all trading stories of the bears that have bent their iron bird feeder poles in half. It’s funny, but it will keep happening once it starts. They have long memories, enjoy sunflower seeds and will keep coming back to places that offer good food.”
“I was here over the summer and I saw a bear crossing the street near Mandelle Hall!” said Mariana Jaramillo ’20. “I’ve talked to people who grew up in South Hadley and they said they’ve seen bears in their backyards before, so it’s normal for the area but not rampant.”
Black bears used to be rare in Massachusetts because they could be killed by anyone. “One of the older staff at Harvard Forest told me that seeing a bear was a ‘once in a lifetime experience’ in northwestern Massachusetts when he was a kid, but no longer,” said Hoopes.
After a conservation effort in 1952, regulations were passed that made it illegal to kill black bears in Massachusetts except during regulated hunting seasons with a hunting license. “The statewide population of black bears is now estimated to be over 4,500 and is growing and expanding eastward. Black bears live and breed in Worcester County, Northern Middlesex County and west to the Berkshires,” said MassWildlife.
According to Hoopes, black bears breed in the winter in dens in the woods around lots of western Massachusetts urban and suburban areas, with females generally having two to three cubs. The most common time to see them in backyards is in the spring.
“Black bears are usually not aggressive and this black bear seems like it is not interested in being in the vicinity of people,” said Evans. “So as long as people are respectful of it and don’t feed, it I think it’s great that a bear is living in the area.”