Bears, Birds and Bees – A Changing Climate and Wildlife in NH
I took in my bird feeder in early April after reading a Facebook post that someone saw the “Amherst Bear.” I left out a small piece of suet, which I wanted the woodpeckers and bluebirds to finish up. Unfortunately, the bear got it first — all gone for the season. The bear easily took down the suet feeder. Fortunately, my post was not bent.
Black bears typically hibernate (or simply become less active) from mid-December to the end of March or beginning of April, sustained on the stored-up energy in their bodies until the warm spring temperatures arrive. This is likely a survival mechanism, as bear dens can be in surprisingly exposed locations: scratched into hillsides, in rock crevices or hollow trees, under brush piles or downed trees, or even in open areas of the forest floor. Sleeping bears seem to be able to sense the presence of intruders, and they are able to wake up very quickly in order to defend themselves.
Earth’s climate has changed over time, and plants and animals have adapted, evolved, or gone extinct as a result. The big concern about our current changing climate is the rapid rate of this change. Scientific data has shown that this is due to our reliance on fossil fuel products that release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere when burned. Climate is one of the factors that influences plants and animals (including humans) that live on Earth.
Climate change over time will affect all the ways we enjoy the natural resources of New Hampshire, such as wildlife watching, hunting, fishing, fall foliage viewing, and other types of nature tourism; thus, we need to adapt as well.
The rapid rate of change observed in our climate is already affecting plants and wildlife, including bears, in New Hampshire. There are already noticeable changes such as increased flooding, extreme fluctuations in precipitation (including rain, snow, and ice events), shifting habitats, and species struggling to adapt. Biologists are keeping a close eye on wildlife as these changes unfold. Some of these species include moose, brook trout, and North Atlantic right whale. The White Mountain fritillary, a butterfly that lives only in the high altitudes of the White Mountains, as the name implies, is one of the most sensitive species affected by changing climate. Predicting what wildlife population numbers and assemblages will be in the future in New Hampshire is difficult but scientists from NH Fish and Game and Vermont’s Center for EcoStudies are just two organizations studying the effect of climate on wildlife.
Unfortunately, with a shift in climate in the Northeast, scientists and wildlife professionals are seeing cases where black bears are waking up earlier, sometimes before adequate food sources are available. Without reliable food sources in the wild, bears then turn to residential areas, looking for food at feeders and garbage cans. Researchers at the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, UNH, examined 100 years of winter temperature and precipitation data collected from weather stations across the forested regions of northeastern North America, revealing we are losing the cold, we are losing the snow, and winters are getting shorter. The trends are bad news for winter outdoor recreation in the backcountry, and also bad for wildlife and their habitats.
Shifting climate not only impacts bears but birds, too. Overall, roughly one third of NH’s breeding species of birds are in decline. Reasons for decline are many; an overarching issue continues to be habitat loss, particularly for shrubland and grassland birds, as well as for many forest species of birds that migrate to the tropics during the winter months. Climate change causes changes in sea level impacting our seacoast birds, increased loss of habitat from fire affects forest birds and changes in vegetation as climate warms affect marsh and wetland birds. Invasive species, either animals or plants, driven by warming climate can endanger the bird population. Animals are predators and invasive plants are not conducive for shelter or food for birds. Lakes and ponds can become polluted through excessive runoff and nitrogen from lawn fertilizers, affecting not only fish but waterfowl as well.
Why does this all matter? Well, it’s not just their brilliant colors, melodious songs, the way they fly through the air, how they scratch for food on the ground, or peck away at a tree; birds play an essential role in the functioning of our ecosystems, directly impacting human health, economy and food production. We need birds, likely more than they need us. Birds control pests, black flies and mosquitos, that prevent us from enjoying an evening out on our deck in the summer. Birds pollinate our flowers and vegetables. Birds clean-up road-kill (chipmunks, squirrels, or an amphibian) and by doing so they help quell the spread of disease. Last but not least, birds help spread seeds, helping to sustain our landscapes and bringing plants back to ecosystems that may have been damaged by storm or fire. Bottom line, birds play an essential role in the functioning of our habitats that directly impacts human health, economy and food production.
Bears enjoy honey from bees. Birds support the production of flowers and plants which bees pollinate to make the honey. It’s all connected. When the climate changes, bees are impacted as well as bears and birds.
Bees are an essential component of agriculture and without them many fruits and flowers would not be in existence today. Multiple organizations in NH including 4-H, have projects to help us both better understand the bee population in NH and what can be done to assure bees and their habitats stay protected, productive and healthy.
Many people want to create pollinator-friendly gardens to support numerous kinds of native bees, as well as honey bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators, including birds. Planting a diverse mix of flowering native plants that provide a sequence of blooms from early spring to late fall will have the largest impact. Even a small patch of the right flowers can help, as it adds to the larger landscape in which the pollinators live and search for food.
Bears, birds and bees need our help. The Amherst Conservation Commission has developed and implemented a Forest Management Plan that proposes solutions to assure we can have thriving wildlife populations and continue to see our bears, birds and bees. Individuals and families can help by carrying out one or more Acts of Green. The list below of Acts of Green is not a requirement. You can choose to try one of these changes at any time. One is not more important than another. Taking action is what counts. You can do it at your own pace but try one.
Practice coexistence and avoid attracting bears into neighborhoods, with food items, especially bird food and exposed garbage.
Learn more about Amherst Warrant Article # 22: Open Space Acquisition Bond. This article, to be voted upon by the town on June 8, 2021, would authorize the Town to appropriate up to $6 million to purchase land and easements for conservation purposes to protect and limit the kinds of future use. This warrant article has the support of the Board of Selectmen and the Town’s Ways and Means Committee. Over 91% of respondents in a recent Amherst Master Plan Survey supported preserving open space.
Support state parks and federal land like the White Mountain National Forest to assure that habitats are conserved. These lands are prime habitat for bears.
Advocate for “smart growth”, balanced development with natural resource protection by considering the size and shape of the development, the density of the development, housing choices and/or its connectivity to abutting lands, all of which can lead to sustainable communities, assuring open space and continuous natural habitats.
To learn more, you can go to one of these resources: