Da Bears of Connecticut
Just about everyone in Simsbury has a bear story. First Selectman Eric Wellman was on his morning run, at the break of dawn, and almost ran smack into an adult black bear as it ambled across the road in front of him. Both were startled. The bear ran away and climbed a tree. Wellman, after a pause, jogged on.
Mark Rudewicz, Simsbury’s animal control officer, has run into bears he could not control — for example, when a large male sauntered toward him, backing him into his truck. Rudewicz had left the door open just in case.
Last year town police received more than 600 bear calls from worried residents, and townspeople reported more than 530 sightings to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), second only to Avon’s 690. There were 7,000-plus sightings reported statewide in 2019, a record. Sixty-three bears were killed in crashes on Connecticut roadways in 2018, another record.
Last April, a bear crashed through a screen door and entered a house in Simsbury. When the homeowner returned he called 911, and DEEP officers killed the bear. Its ear tag revealed it to be a repeat offender. As in most close encounters with humans, the bear was after food.
In 2018 Simsbury police reported four such break-ins, as well as two houses that were damaged in failed attempts. There were 21 home invasions by bears statewide in 2018 — yet another record — according to DEEP.
March and April are when black bears (Ursus americanus) emerge from their winter slumber, lean and hungry. Omnivores, they eat everything from acorns, skunk cabbage and small deer to birdseed, unsecured garbage and, on occasion, livestock. Some people even leave food out for them so they can admire the animals close up — even though DEEP officers warn that “a fed bear” that grows too acclimated to humans often becomes, for reasons of public safety, “a dead bear.” Simsbury is drafting an ordinance that would prohibit intentionally feeding bears.
Connecticut’s bears grow fat and happy on natural and human food — males can weigh 600 pounds — and they make more bears.
Once limited to the Litchfield hills, since the 1980s the species has been colonizing more and more territory in the state. The range where mothers with cubs commonly are found is now roughly one third of the state — mostly in the northern tier and west of the Connecticut River — but juvenile males are wont to explore far and wide. Residents in 160 of Connecticut’s 169 towns reported seeing bears last year. And the “family range” is expanding south and east steadily.
“Bears don’t have the same limiting factors that some other wild animals have,” he said. “They are not extensively territorial and they don’t deplete their food resources the way other animals can, such as deer.” Much of the state east of the Connecticut River, where there are few bears now, is prime habitat for the species. Bears can swim the Connecticut River and they also are moving south from eastern Massachusetts.
Rego heads up an annual effort that radio-collars sows to monitor their health and reproductive success. After locating dens in the late winter, he approaches the mother and injects her with a sedative — often caveman style, using a hand-held spear.
He has conducted hundreds of these intimate confrontations over the years and, as yet, nary a bear has laid a paw on him — this despite the presence of cubs. The mothers simply run away, generally stopping at a safe distance to observe him as the drug takes effect.
“That’s a good indicator of the level of bear aggressiveness toward humans,” he said. “It’s very low, not impossible, but very low.” He added as a caveat, “We seldom deal with male bears.”
Black bear attacks on humans are extremely rare, although one did knock down a hiker in Southbury in September. The man was treated and released from a hospital. Another hiker in New Jersey was killed by a male black bear in September 2014, the first such case in 150 years in that state, which has many times more bears than Connecticut.
The dens that Rego and fellow conservation officers find are frequently, and surprisingly, embedded in decidedly human habitat, rather than in the deep woods. For example, one such site in Simsbury, located several years back, was atop a wooded ridge, just a short walk from a golf course and within sight of a school. The mother had three healthy cubs.
A recent study led by UConn professor Dr. Tracy Rittenhouse concluded, “Human habitation is not displacing but attracting species like bears and bobcats.” She said, “This is the first study to put solid evidence and numbers behind the idea that there are more bears in exurban places rather than rural places.”
She added, “We have in Connecticut this mixture of natural habitat and urbanization where both bears and people live in the same places.”
In short, too many houses or too few houses mean few if any bears. But when the housing density is just right — between 6 and 25 every 250 acres or so — that’s prime bear habitat. And travelling to and from such home bases, bears often wander through highly populated neighborhoods, including dense suburbs and even cities.
Unsurprisingly, interaction between humans and bears is on the rise. And in each of the past three years bills have been proposed in the Connecticut General Assembly to institute a hunting season on bears. None have passed. New York and all of the other New England states except Rhode Island permit bear hunting.
The DEEP supports establishing a hunt.
“Currently we have bears that have grown highly habituated to humans and very brazen,” Rego said. “In areas where there is hunting, that type of bear behavior is much less common. The idea is that a hunting season, over the years, would lessen the number of bold bears, or the boldness of bears, and also stabilize the population.”
To keep the number of bears at its current level would mean harvesting a minimum of 80 to 100 animals a season, Rego said.
When asked if he supported a bear-hunting season, Simsbury First Selectman Eric Wellman hesitated and then said that he did, addingm “I’m going to get so much hate mail on this.” He explained his reasoning: “These are baseline peaceful animals, and I don’t want to lose sight of that, but they are also very large and wild animals, and I worry that with increasing interaction it’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously injured.”
In addition to opposition to killing black bears from a significant portion of the electorate, there is the issue of how to hunt bears effectively in towns like Simsbury, where the quarry and people live in close quarters. DEEP hunting regulations prohibit shooting firearms within 500 feet of a building occupied by people or livestock, or shooting from or across public roadways. A landowner must have a minimum of 10 acres for rifle or pistol hunting. A circle defined by a 500-foot radius with no occupied houses consists of about 18 acres.