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Here's how you know it's spring time in New England: The days are growing longer, the trees are budding and bears are invading. In many towns in western Massachusetts, black bears are exploring urban backyards and residential streets on a hunt for food in what's becoming an annual rite of spring. Karen Brown of New England Public Radio has this report.

KAREN BROWN, BYLINE: I've put out the word on my neighborhood listserv that I was looking for tales of recent bear encounters. Within an hour, I had about a dozen responses. That's twice as many as when I asked for gutter cleaners. Almost everyone, it seems, has a bear story.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I was weeding by the side of our driveway, middle of a summer day, and a huge, must've been a male, literally walked by within a couple feet of me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And I just screamed at Joan, there's a bear, really loud. And, of course, she couldn't hear me because she's like, you know, bopping away under the headphones.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Walked out on the porch, and there was a bear with two cubs...

BROWN: How did we get to this point? Northampton is a college town, full of restaurants, clothing stores and art galleries - not exactly wilderness. But it's flanked by rural, wooded and swampy areas that black bears love, and they don't have far to go for easy meals - our dumpsters, our bird feeders, our compost bins.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: And the mother bear lifted this up and swung the door open, and knocked the trash can over. And, you know, I mean, we see them in the yard all the time.

BROWN: Over the last three decades, wildlife trackers have counted more and more bears in Northampton. I live near a meadow, and it's not unusual to look up from cooking dinner and see a mama bear and her cubs lumbering down the cul-de-sac, as my neighbor Jane Fleishman explains.

JANE FLEISHMAN: When the bears are sighted in our neighborhood, you can literally track them on the Internet. People will post a photo, and then 10 minutes later, they'll say, oh, it's in my driveway. Oh, it's in my backyard. And you can literally follow them around. So in some ways, I think there's a great fascination for them.

BROWN: People don't seem to be scared. There are reports of bears breaking into cars or popping out kitchen screens, but no attacks on humans. Northampton writer Elissa Alford even tried to talk to a bear on her patio.

ELISSA ALFORD: I really just wanted to make eye contact. I wanted to have that moment where we were together and seeing each other, that contact with the wild.

BROWN: But does it have to be quite so close?

JANEL JORDA: We love bears. We love wildlife. What we don't love is having them trample through our property on a daily basis.

BROWN: Janel Jorda sees a darker side to the Northampton ursine story. She shows me where bears have destroyed her wooden trash enclosure and crushed her landscape lighting. Last month, a mother bear ripped down her chain link fence as Jorda gaped from the other side of a glass door.

JORDA: When the baby tried to follow the mother in, the baby got stuck - and the baby was huge - and got stuck inside the fence. And that's when I was, like, oh, man, I better call the police, because I was alone with a huge mother and two babies.

BROWN: Jorda doesn't blame the bears. She blames a neighbor who's apparently feeding them. Wildlife officials are pushing for a city law to make feeding bears illegal, so they'd have little reason to leave their natural habitat. Problem is, mother bears have already taught their cubs that chomping on discarded pizza crusts is a lot easier than picking berries in the woods. For the next generation of bears, this may actually be their natural habitat.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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