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Smarter than your average bears: Bears open car doors, cause damage on Birch Hill

By Tom Eastman
CONWAY — Police and N.H. Fish and Game officials have received several reports of bear break-ins of parked vehicles and some homes in the Birch Hill neighborhood off West Side Road in North Conway.
Vehicles belonging to Stacy Sand and Terry Leavitt were visited by a door-opening bear between 10 p.m. Thursday and 8 a.m. Friday.
Leavitt, the Conway Daily Sun's community editor, said the interior of her Pontiac Vibe was the most damaged.
She said the bear did not touch a jacket that was stored in the car which had dog treats in its pocket.
She surmised that apparently, the bear opened the doors of Sand's vehicle — also a Vibe — and left the doors open. It took a can of nuts and opened them outside the car.
The bear then made its way into Leavitt's vehicle and became trapped inside when the door shut.
It then broke the front side passenger window, Leavitt said.
She discovered the break-in Friday morning when she saw the car doors open on Sand's vehicle, and then the broken window in her car. She said the lining on the doors was ripped apart, along with the visor and the dashboard. There was also scat on the front ad back seats, and sandy paw prints inside the car as well as on the doors.
“There is practically no damage to Stacy's car, but there were paw  prints on the handles of both cars. We didn't take paw prints, but bears apparently have sandy paws — sticky, sandy paws,” Leavitt said.
That report followed one of a break-in of a GMC Sierra pickup truck last week owned by Ian White of Cedar Creek early April 25.
“I have no clue how the bear even possibly was able to do that, but it did,” said White, a recent Boston College graduate and football standout. “My mom came down to my room at 6:30 in the morning and asked me to come look at my truck with her. I could see that someone had broken into the truck and that the front driver door was open. As I got closer to look and see if anyone was inside, I saw a pile of dirt on the front driver seat and a pile of dirt on the back seat, along with a few empty potato chip bags and trash all ripped up in the truck and more outside in the woods. But there was no damage to the truck, other than scratches on the driver door.”
Heather Clement, who also lives in Birch Hill, had her car broken into by a bear a few weeks ago. The bear didn't do any damage to the car but did make a mess, Clement reports. "Had to get the car detailed."
On her Facebook page on Friday, Clement wrote, "At least four more cars were broken into on the hill overnight. These bears are hungry! Don't learn the hard way (like I did): Lock your vehicle doors at night, my friends!"
Fish and Game conservation officer Alex Lopashanski of Albany said the latest bear break-ins are part of a dozen or so that have been reported since the third week of April.
He said this is at least the third generation of bears in the region who have learned how to manipulate door handles.
Asked about the bears and their ability to open doors, he said the bears are “very smart, inquisitive and hungry.”
“That's basically their whole goal — to eat,” said Lopashanski.
Lopashanski said a bear technician based in Lancaster caught, removed and euthanized a large bear from Birch Hill on Thursday. The bear was estimated to weigh 400 pounds and is believed to have broken into a barn and porch as well as vehicles.
The technician, Nancy Comeau, works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Service. She had tracked the bear and set the trap at different locations in Birch Hill for two weeks.
“Nancy said it was probably the biggest bear she has ever seen in her years of trapping. That bear was removed to the northern part of the state and euthanized Thursday, so it obviously was not the bear that caused this problem late Thursday or Friday morning,” said Lopashanski.
He said he may be able to have Comeau return Monday with the trap to try and catch this bear — but again, he said, it may take weeks to catch that bear, given what just happened with the other, larger bear.
He urged all to secure their garbage and to bring in bird feeders.
“It's not just a matter of bringing in the bird feeders at night — they will smell it and it will bring them around,” said Lopashanski. “I would 100 percent discourage people from putting out any type of bird feeder.”
He said Birch Hill has been a particular area of concern as he believes that some people have intentionally fed bears, while others have done so unintentionally.
“People should be very careful about leaving things out. If the bears don’t get food, they wont come. Birch Hill has long been an area of concern for bear problems, because the homes abut the national forest,” said Lopashanski.
He said his predecessor, the late Sgt. Brian Abrams, took some Birch Hill property owners to court for purposely feeding bears.
Lt. Chris Perley of the Conway Police Department joined Lopashanski in urging residents to safeguard their food and garbage. He said drivers should lock their vehicles at night to protect against regular thieves and invaders of the four-legged kind.
“These bears can open a door, but as far as we know, no one has ever reported any bears that can pick a lock,” he said.
Conway police also received reports of a bear Saturday in a dumpster behind Headlines Boutique and behind the Colonial Hotel, both in North Conway.
To report bear problems, Lopashanski and Perley said people may call Fish and Game's dispatch at 271-3361; Carroll County Sheriff's Department at 539-2284, U.S.D.A. Wildlife Services in Concord at 223-6832 or 1-888-749-2327 (SHY-BEAR); or Conway Police at 356-5715.
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