New Hampshire officials are receiving more reports of roaming bears than usual.
"Yes, we're seeing an increase in sightings," said Andrew Timmins, state Fish and Game's bear expert.
Salem police issued a warning to the public last week after residents of the neighborhood that includes North Salem Elementary School reported bears on the loose.
"The bear sightings have been specifically seen in the Coventry Road neighborhood," police said.
This is typically a busy time of year for bears. Bears become active in the spring as they emerge from hibernation and start looking for food, Timmins said.
But there are more sightings than usual.
Timmins said he suspects contributing factors are people getting too casual about garbage management, leaving bird feeders up too long and more intentional feeding of bears by wildlife enthusiasts.
The state's bear population is estimated at 5,000, a pretty stable number. During the last bear hunting season, 418 bears were taken statewide.
There are only black bears in the wild of the Granite State. Males can weigh as much as 250 pounds; females tip the scales around 125 to 150 pounds.
Across Southern New Hampshire, officials are likely to get reports of 20 to 40 sightings in a given year. Up in the North Country, that number swells to 200 or 300.
In the northern part of the state, officials said, they field fewer reports than they might because people there are used to seeing bears and don't always feel the need to call the police.
Timmins speculates Salem isn't being overrun with bears.
"Here's my gut take on that. I bet they are dealing with one or two animals that are being persistent," Timmins said.
There's no need for panic if a student is walking back and forth to North Salem Elementary, he said.
"You tell your kid to treat a bear like any wild animal," Timmins said. "Keep your distance from them. But don't live in fear."
Maureen Clark works with trained bears at the bear show at Clark's Trading Post. She echoes the caution from Timmins.
"I work with captive, trained bears. I know what to do. I know how they act," Clark said. "I agree with Fish and Game. They say enjoy wildlife at a safe distance."
She is the third generation of her family to have worked with bears, and has great respect and appreciation for them.
"There's no need to be afraid of them," she said. "Admire them from a distance, but always use your head."
Experts see increasing interaction between bears and people as a natural consequence of growth in the state, rather than a surge in the bear population. There are just more people and more homes in proximity to woods.
"It's no mystery. This has been going on throughout the country and Canada for many years," said Benjamin Kilham, wildlife biologist and New Hampshire author of "Among the Bears," who works returning orphaned bears to the wild.
"Humans are leaving too much food in residential areas."
That's the reason bears are in a neighborhood.
"Somebody is feeding them," he said. "Bears just don't come around homes."
The bear issue is really as much about managing people as it is the bears.
"When they have the opportunity to eat, they eat," Kilham said.
There are a couple of steps people can take to deter bears from showing up.
"It's all about controlling food attractants around the house," Timmins said.
One step is protect the garbage from the bears. Put waste inside the garage or shed, close the Dumpster and keep garbage in covered containers where bears are less likely to smell the leftovers.
Put bird feeders away in the spring and don't put them back out until early December.
"Bird seed is about six or seven times the quality of vegetation," Kilham said.
Salem police encouraged residents to use air horns to shoo bears.
Fish and Game recommends clapping, talking or making other sounds.
Bears will sometimes bluff charge when they are cornered or threatened. Fish and Game officials said people should stand their ground and slowly back away when that happens.
"You don't need to be afraid of them," Kilham said. "Bears are getting food from people. They think highly of those who share food with them. What you don't want to do is try to approach them. Put the food away. The bears will go away."
In the unlikely event someone is attacked by a bear, they should fight back, Fish and Game officials recommend.
The advice has worked for years. The last time someone was killed by a bear in New Hampshire was 1784.
People who see bears in Salem can call the animal control officer at 893-1911 or 890-2390.
Elsewhere in Southern New Hampshire, they can call U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services to report "nuisance" wildlife at 223-6832.
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