At the beginning of the legislative session, what to do about the all-time high bear sightings and damage in Connecticut seemed poised to overpower other environmental issues. But that has not happened.
Part of the reason may be that the legislation that emerged from the Senate and is now headed to the House in these last two weeks of the session resembles a bear waking up from hibernation. It’s a whole lot slimmer than it started.
No bear hunts, no drastic rules, but not fully benign towards bears either.
“I call this a good first step,” said Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, Senate ranking member on the Environment Committee. His 18-town district covers the heart of bear country up and down the western swath of the state. He was one of 31 who voted for the bill in the Senate last week — with three opposed and two not voting.
“I unfortunately don’t think this is enough in terms of truly addressing what needs to be addressed,” he said. “I do think at some point, we need to discuss a hunting season regulated and limited by DEEP (the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) as they’ve recommended time and time again.”
Connecticut recorded more than 10,500 bear sightings in 2022. This year there are already more than 2,900. There were more than 3,600 reports of damage last year — nearly half involving trash and more than one-quarter involving bird feeders. Connecticut is the only state in the region that does not have some form of bear hunting.
Many bear bills were filed, ranging from unrestricted bear hunting to simple educational measures. The legislation that bubbled does three things:
- It clarifies existing rights of residents to kill a bear that is attacking people or pets.
- It allows farmers suffering from crop or livestock destruction by bears to get a permit from DEEP to kill the bear.
- It bans intentional feeding of bears and provides for penalties if someone is found to have done that.
Gone is a provision for people who unintentionally feed bears — say as the result of having a bird feeder. If they had been warned but continue, then it would have been considered intentional.
“We've worked really hard to make this a bipartisan bill that almost everyone could agree to,” said Sen. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, co-chair of the committee. “Removing the unintentional feeding brought quite a few more people in support of the bill.”
“That's too bad,” said Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, who represents nine towns in bear-heavy Litchfield County. The bill had largely been modeled on her legislation, which she had proposed last year, incurring all manner of invective calling her bloodthirsty, before it failed. Her chief concern has been the farmers in her district.
“A lot of people have strong opinions here. And if we can move the ball a little bit down the field and get help for farmers — this is their livelihood,” she said. “This has been a huge battle in the past. That this has gotten this far — it's progress. I'm certainly going to advocate for keeping the topic alive and to passing it in house.”
Her battle isn’t over.
Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, has not been shy about his disdain for killing bears. He contends that the self-defense provision provides a loophole to just go out in the forest and shoot a bear and claim it was self-defense. “It gives the opportunity for anyone to shoot a bear anywhere,” he said.
Lopes contends that’s always been possible and hasn’t happened. “That loophole, I want to strenuously say, is not a loophole,” he said. “People want people to break the law, they could have done it already. No one has ever done it.”
But Michel is planning to file amendments including protocols to keep orphaned bear cubs from being euthanized. And if they aren’t adopted, he’ll vote against the bill.
What he would like to have had in the bill — not possible now because it would entail additional expense — is a fully funded education campaign through DEEP. DEEP does maintain a robust bear information portal on its website and items do pop up on social media. But many legislators point out legislation is not needed for DEEP to do a broader education campaign.
Michel also would have like funding for municipalities and farmers to purchase bear-proof public trash receptacles.
Salisbury — rural, heavily wooded and home to lots of bears — is exhibit-A that they work. “We bought six or eight bear-proof containers for the main villages, and those are highly effective,” said First Selectman Curtis Rand. “I've had so many fewer complaints about bears in the center of the village — Lakeville and Salisbury — than we had a few years ago since we put those in.”
But bears have still gotten into homes. Rand said DEEP has generally responded promptly to such incidents, which perhaps allays another fear that DEEP might not move quickly enough to provide permits to farmers harmed by bears.
While the legislation seems likely to make it through the House, this is by no means the last time a bear bill is likely to make an appearance.
“The prevailing issue that I hear from constituents on this issue is that something has to be done,” Harding said. “It’s certainly not over. I’m not naïve enough to think this is going to resolve the issues.”
Lopes said he doesn’t think Connecticut can legislate its way out of bear-human interactions. “They're going to continue. And unfortunately, statistically, they might get worse,” he said. The legislation is designed to deal with some of the more immediate problems. “Will it stop the bear-human interactions?” he said. “No, I think those are going to continue.”