GROTON — Karen Chu was walking her dog as usual along Duck Pond Road last Saturday morning when she spotted a big, fluffy black animal on a lawn 30 feet away.
Watching it walk on all fours, she assumed someone in the subdivision had a new dog — until it stood up several-feet-tall, like a human-being and looked straight at Chu.
“I didn’t know what to do when I saw it,” Chu said of the black bear.
Keeping her dog on a tight leash, Chu calmly turned and walked away. When she turned around again to take a picture with her cell phone, the bear had already crossed the road into someone else’s backyard.
Ever since Tonya Boyce of Groton heard about black-bear sightings, she hasn’t dared walk in any forested area. With a growing number of residents encountering black bears all across the town, Boyce says she is feeling nervous.
“I’m wondering if it’s a town safety issue,” Boyce said.
Black bears are expanding their territories into eastern Massachusetts every year as their population continues to grow, according to Laura Hajduk, bear biologist for the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
In Groton, the number of black-bear sightings soared this year with at least a dozen cases reported so far, said town Animal Inspector George Moore.
He normally receives from 15 to 30 reports in one year. Moore keeps a town map with all locations of bear sightings crossed out with an X sign. Moore said the Xs now dot all over the map, including Chu’s Lost Lake neighborhood in East Groton, from which he never had a bear sighting report until this year. And that is leaving some local residents on a high alert.
Many of the bears recently spotted are mother bears with one to three cubs in a tow, he said. May through July is also a season for bears that turned about 1 1/2 years old to start roaming around by themselves and “set up shops,” Hajduk said.
The biggest contributor to the bear population growth is the state’s restriction on some hunting techniques, such as use of dogs and baiting, which were commonly used to catch bears in the past, Hajduk said. There are about 3,000 black bears in Massachusetts currently, compared to 100 in the early 1970s.
Abundance of food in people’s backyards has also encouraged bears to wander close to homes, becoming accustomed to humans, Moore said. Black bears have occasionally shown up in as far east towns as Methuen, Andover and North Andover, according to Hajduk. Last year, one bear sighting was reported from Lynnfield and Middleton, although Hajduk believes they were isolated cases of some individual male bears moving around.
The good news is, Hajduk said, there is no need for people to be scared of a bear or walking outside. Black bears are not aggressive and won’t attack humans unless provoked, she said.
“If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone,” Moore said.
To avoid encountering a bear to begin with, residents are encouraged to keep their yards free of foods, including garbage. John Ellenberger, who lives in north Groton, recently shot pictures and video of a black bear clearing bird-feeders in his backyard. Boyce jokingly said she is considering bringing a cow bell to her trail walk, and Hajduk said that’s actually a good idea.
Here are tips to follow for avoiding encountering and provoking black bears.
* Take down bird feeders, keep outdoor grills clean and put a tight lid on a trash can, so that bears couldn’t get into it.
* When walking on a trail or through woods, attach a bell to your belongings. Bears would hear it from a distance and stay away.
* If you run into a bear, clap your hands and shout. Bears are fearful of humans, making such noise usually makes them go away.
* Do not run. Walk backwards while still looking at the bear.
* Keep a dog on a lease while walking so that you can take a control of its movement when you run into a bear. Keep the dog quiet if possible, but keeping it from becoming physically aggressive with the bear is more important. Even when barked at by a dog, a bear would still feel threatened by your presence and likely walk away.
* Mother bears might send their cubs up a tree out of fear that you might harm them. Do not approach the tree to look at the cubs. Just walk away.
* If a bear pops its jaw, it’s a sign that you are too close to the animal and are stressing it. It might also take a few steps forward toward you. Follow the safety tips listed above and back away.
* If bears become any more aggressive — which is extremely rare — call local police. The state environmental police will respond to address the situation.
As for punching a black bear in the nose — which some Groton residents claimed could work in case of being attacked by one — Hajduk said, as far as she knows, no one has ever tried doing it. A black bear wouldn’t get that close to a human, she said. If you think it could, just call police, she said.
Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has detailed information about black bears in Massachusetts and tips for preventing conflict with the animal. Visit http://www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/wildlife/living/living_with_bears.htm.