Two black bears took a long, leisurely stroll through Needham on Thursday and Friday, causing no known significant damage or injuries but shocking many residents and inspiring an impromptu town wide effort to chronicle their movements in pictures.
The Massachusetts Environmental Police said they are tracking both bears, juveniles who are looking for a new habitat, according to MEP Lieutenant Michael Lees.
“In this situation with these two bears it seems like it’s just two young siblings, about a year-and-a-half old, maybe,” said Lees. “The mother just booted them out because she’s ready to re-breed, and they are looking for a place to set up shop.”
The first bear sightings in Needham came Thursday near Olin College, according to Chief of Police John Schlittler, but the mass of sightings came as one of the bears moved through the center of town Friday morning. Residents took numerous photos and posted them on the local Facebook page as one moved through the Harris Avenue, DeFazio Park, and Needham Golf Club areas from roughly 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., before at least one of the bears appeared to leave town and head toward Dedham and Westwood.
“I think now it’s in Westwood,” Schlittler said at noon Friday. “It was over by Dedham Country Club. It crossed the river and it’s over there. But it could come back. It’s looking for a food source.”
Lees said the bear that is causing most of the sightings likely crossed the Charles River near Edgewater Drive, and it could choose to stay in that general area, south of Burgess Lane and around the Dedham Country Club.
“There’s a huge chunk of woods there, and there is great habitat and he can probably live there. But if he’s going to come back he’ll probably circle up and around and we’ll probably get calls tomorrow in Needham,” said Lees.
The other bear, he said, had been moving around the southeast part of Wellesley and around Great Plain Avenue on Thursday.
While the bears are in the area, Schlittler said, residents should leave them alone and take extra precautions with pets, in case they do come back.
“People need to secure their bird feeders and don’t leave trash out, dog food, stuff like that, because if they find a source, they’re gonna keep going to it,” he said, stressing that Needham’s animal control officer is monitoring the situation and tracking the bears.
According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, most bears passing through residential areas are young “teen” bears looking for new territories. Needham is just outside what is considered the “expanding bear range” in Massachusetts, a line that technically terminates at the eastern borders of Framingham, Ashland, and Hopkinton. In reality, though, bears are leaving those areas behind and pushing east.
“People need to learn to live with bears because they are here, they are pushing further east and south and north as they come toward (Interstate) 495 and (Route) 128,” Lees said. “And this is what we’re seeing more and more. The population’s growing a bit.”
Despite the greater human population density, this is a good area for bears to live in if they can find a large wooded area.
“The basal area trees provide acorns they eat a lot, they have cover, a big tree will tip over and create a good den site so we have more den sites. The habitat is really good for bears,” Lees said.
Needham resident Suzanne Diehl Brooks posted a picture taken by her husband, Doug Brooks, who had been golfing at the Needham Golf Club, of one of the bears walking on the train tracks at 8:49 a.m.
“He saw the bear walking on the train tracks between the seventh and ninth holes near Hersey Station, headed toward DeFazio,” Brooks said.
Those kinds of photos piqued the interest of some residents; Pete Burdick, who lives on Greenwood Avenue north of Great Plain, jumped into his car in his pajamas as soon as he saw the bear photos on Facebook to look for the bear.
“Somebody posted that it was in the Hawthorne and Washington Street area, which is right around the corner from me. So I said you’ve gotta get in the car,” Burdick said. “I’m a big outdoors person, I’ve hunted bear, I hunt deer, and I gotta go check this out. See this guy, see how big he is.”
He was driving around, following the posts, and zeroing in on the bear’s location.
“I go down Prince Street, down on Harris, roaming around, all of a sudden I see it,” Burdick said.
He saw it cross Harris and walk right by a woman gardening, who did not appear to recognize what exactly the bear was until it was past her.
That woman was Jennifer Newman.
“I was literally out there for maybe 10 minutes doing my weeding,” she said. “Normally lots of people walk by with their dogs. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an animal running through my yard, and I assumed it was a dog who got off leash. I turned and saw it was a bear.”
Startled, and not quite knowing what to do, Newman took refuge in the car of a driver who happened to be passing by and they observed as the bear went on its way.
“It was clear that he was scared,” she said.
The hope is that soon, the bears will pass through and move on to a site where they don’t bother residents and residents don’t bother them, which is usually what happens. As authorities continue to monitor the bear and wait for it to complete its passage, they try to avoid immobilizing and moving the bear if possible, preferring not to incapacitate bears with drugs.
“We try to limit the amount of immobilizations we do,” Lees said. “We put ear tags in them to try to identify them and have a specific number on them and then move them to an undisclosed location and don’t tell the public because everyone wants to go there and see them.”
The better outcome is that the bear moves on by itself, he said.
“Everybody thinks we’re here to move the bear every time, but it’s not every time. It’s actually very [rarely] that we try and move them.”
The reality is that the bears just want food, aren’t looking for contact with humans, and aren’t aggressive if they do make contact.
“They are very docile. They are not out looking for people,” Lees said. “They are out looking for bird feeders, garbage cans and grills, dumpsters, whatever kind of easy food source they can find. These are teenagers – they are no different than ours – they are hungry, just like ours.”
Needham resident Daniel Barbarisi is a senior editor at The Athletic and a non-fiction author.