Bears on the rise in Connecticut

With the state now spending a quarter-million-dollars a year responding to concerns about the exploding black bear population, environmental officials are considering proposing a regular bear-hunting season for the first time in the state.

“Conflicts with humans are increasing every year,” said Jason Hawley, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). “Really the only way to manage a bear population is through a hunting season.”

According to DEEP, several hundred black bears live in Connecticut, and the population is expected to double every five to seven years. They’re concentrated in the northwestern, more rural portion of the state, but as open space becomes more scarce, they’re moving into more populated areas.

That movement was on full display last week in Madison, where DEEP officials had to euthanize a bear after it displayed “aggressive” behavior, approaching a homeowner as he filmed the bear from his window.

There were 352 reports of damage by bears in Connecticut last year, and at least 16 incidents in the year before where bears entered homes. Road accidents involving bears have also been on the rise, with 24 killed last year compared with fewer than 10 in 2000.

Each time residents or town officials complain about a bear, DEEP must investigate to determine whether the bear needs to be euthanized or can be scared off by nonlethal means -– which include shooting at them with paintball guns full of pepper, or using pepper spray. The process is arduous, Hawley said, and the results aren’t ideal. Euthanized bears can’t be eaten, for instance.

“It’s kind of wasteful when we go in and euthanize bears, because then they just go to waste,” he pointed out. “Whereas if hunters take them, they’re actually used.”

Bob Crook, executive director and lobbyist for the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said the lack of a hunting season for bears costs the state money.

There have been attempts in the state to introduce a lottery for bear-hunting, but the issue can be touchy with animal rights activists and others concerned about guns and hunting in residential areas. Crook is not convinced that the right time to suggest a hunting season will be during the next legislative session, which begins in January, but at some point, it will be necessary, he said.

“When the bears get out of control, then the state’ll have to do something. We’ll have to do something. They won’t have an option.”

Where do they come from?

Bears were virtually nonexistent in Connecticut for nearly a century as agriculture and industry took over the land. The same is true of many other animals –- such as deer and coyotes –- that have since returned to the state, to the concern of many residents and environmental officials.

Theories vary as to why bear are back.

bear damage

“There’s lots of good food. There’s good habitat and good food,” said Larry Ragonese, spokesman for New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection.

As in Connecticut, bears were hardly seen in New Jersey in the 20th century up until the 1980s. Now, the Northwest corner alone of the Garden State is estimated to have 3,500 bears and is often referred to as “bear country.”

As farming became less prevalent in the Northeast, forests grew back. Development on open space hastened, leaving bears with fewer options far from humans. And as bears were considered protected species in the 1960s and 1970s, the lack of hunting also spurred population growth. Even now, environmental officials in Maine say their bear population — which is in the tens of thousands — is increasing because the economy has dampened hunting activity in recent years.

New Jersey began a bear-hunting season in 2003, but has had to cancel its season several times in the past decade. In 2010, the state’s fish and game council adopted a comprehensive bear management plan, and hunting resumed. Animal rights activists sued the state, but judges struck down the lawsuit as well as subsequent appeals, and the state supreme court declined to hear the case.

Ragonese said the state is still evaluating its approach, but that the hunting season seems to show progress is being made to control the bear population. About 8,000 people each year register to hunt bears, and 1,100 bears were “harvested” in the past two years.

The season has been less successful in Massachusetts. The state’s black bear project leader, Laura Conlee, said nearly 8,000 people hold permits to hunt bears, but fewer than 200 are harvested each year. That’s in spite of the fact that Massachusetts has allowed bear-hunting since the 1970s, and the hunting season is far longer than New Jersey’s.

“It is not something that is causing our [bear] population to decline in any way,” said Conlee, who said Massachusetts has about 4,500 bears, and the number is increasing by about 8 percent each year.

In the 1990s, Massachusetts stopped allowing hunters to use dogs or bait — a decision that Bob Crook said crippled the state’s ability to control its bear population and led to increased growth in neighboring Connecticut. (New Jersey does allow the use of bait for bear-hunting.)

“I’m sure that could be part of it,” DEEP’s Hawley agreed. “That really limits your ability to harvest bears. There’s certainly plenty of bears in Western Massachusetts … it’s a source population [for Connecticut].”

What to do about it

Several years ago, DEEP promised to have a comprehensive bear management plan by 2007. In 2012, the plan has still not been completed. Hawley said the agency continues to do research, which will take about two more years, before recommending a hunting season or other measures. (New Jersey, for instance, has also passed a law against feeding wildlife, fining violators up to $100 through the municipal court system.)

DEEP wildlife officials are tracking bears using GPS devices and “hair snares,” which allow them to collect furs from a bear and test the DNA. While the research is being completed, the agency says it will continue to educate residents about staying safe around bears and urge them not to feed animals.

It is legal to kill a bear if a resident thinks his or her life is in immediate danger. But DEEP still has to investigate the incident, and in most cases, residents will call police or the agency before anything is done. Deciding whether or not to euthanize can be a tough call, Hawley said.

“For some people, if a bear looks at them, that’s aggressive. For other people, it would take a bear charging at them,” he said.

In the case of the bear in Madison, though, “this person happened to take video of it. When we saw the video, we just determined that that was unacceptable behavior.”

Lobbyist Bob Crook said Connecticut is missing out on revenue by not allowing a hunting season.

“Maine makes a ton of money off their hunting season,” he said. (According to the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 8,900 people have a license to hunt bears, which costs a minimum of $27; it’s much more expensive for out-of-state hunters.)

“They’ve got to investigate, they’ve got to set up traps, they’ve got to euthanize some of the animals,” Crook said. “All of this takes money. And that’s our money. And there’s no solution.”

Fairfield County News Desk intern Megan Forbes contributed to this report.

This story is the result of a reporting partnership between The Mirror at WNPR. Listen to a radio version of this story here.