Aug 28, 2013
06:49 AM
The Connecticut Story

Hunting Bear in Connecticut Continues to Be a Hotly Debated Question

Hunting Bear in Connecticut Continues to Be a Hotly Debated Question

Black bears are the smallest of their kind in North America. Yet the males—boars as they’re called—still weigh between 150 and 450 pounds, and can reach six feet long.

As far as bears go, they’re no grizzlies. But they’re still bears, they’re here, and their numbers are growing. And in Connecticut, when black bear numbers increase, so do their interactions with the population.

In July, a West Hartford man was walking a pair of dogs near a reservoir when a black bear came upon them. The bear attacked and he fired upon it with a handgun. His schnauzer was injured and the bear escaped into the woods.

Late May, a West Hartford woman had a run-in with a black bear that ventured too close to her home. According to the Connecticut Post, the bear entered Shannon Flannery’s property along with two cubs. The mother, protecting its young, chased Flannery’s dog into the house, injuring Flannery. Due to rabies concerns, the bear had to be euthanized by authorities after the event, and its cubs were released into the wild.

From August 2012 to May 2013, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) reported 1,640 sightings of black bear activity. While this number does not reflect the true bear population in Connecticut, it does illustrate the growing intersection between black bears and back yards.

Which may be why House Bill No. 6654 gained some traction. It calls for an investigation into the feasibility of a black bear hunt in the state, which would be the first of its kind in more than a century.

House Bill No. 6654 is very much exploratory. It asks only that DEEP submit a report by February 2014 into the possible establishment of a bear-hunting season managed by a lottery program. If such a lottery were approved and a hunting season were set, it would ask hunters to fork over $200 for the privilege of bagging a bear.

Paul Rego, a DEEP wildlife biologist, makes it clear that no laws have yet been passed regarding active bear hunting in the state. But that doesn’t mean he thinks a hunting season is beyond the realm of possibility. Rego says the “rough estimate” of black bear numbers in the state lies somewhere between 300 and 500.

“We look at the area of the state where we know bears occur. We look at density estimates through research in other states,” he says. “We look at the length of time over which bears have occurred in the state, and also compare levels of vehicle-killed bears.”

Rego says DEEP first observed black bears taking up residence in the state during the mid-1980s for the first time in over 150 years. Last year, about 30 black bears ended up as roadkill. While they may not number in the thousands like deer or turkey, black bears are still repopulating Connecticut at an estimated 10 to 15 percent annual growth rate.

Former journalist and author Jim Sterba, interviewed while promoting his book Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds, says that after 400 years of ecological destruction in the Northeast—deforestation for farming and hunting for profit—the conservation movement of the first half of last century, coupled with societal shifts, has resulted in a unique, environmental renaissance.

“What I assert,” says Sterba, “is that it’s very likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals, birds, and trees in the eastern United States today than anywhere on the planet, at any time in history.”

This statement he calls a “mouthful.” Explaining further, Sterba says two thirds of the American population lives in the east, with a majority of them living in suburban sprawl, not quite rural but not quite city. Among that sprawl are returning populations of millions of deer, turkey and Canada geese—uncommon sights in the not-too-distant past. “And increasingly,” he adds, “animals that were pretty rare, like bears and moose and raptors.”

Theodore C. Shafer, First Selectman of Burlington, has been a denizen of the town for 15 years. It’s a “bedroom community,” where 50 percent of the land is open space, either state forests, water company land or otherwise undeveloped private land. He and his fellow Burlington residents are no strangers to the black bears. Shafer claims Burlington topped the list for most bear sightings last year.

Those sightings, he says, often occur close to home. Bird feeders, trash cans—they’re easy targets for black bears looking for some extra calories. But, for the most part, through education at schools, mailings and a dose of common sense, he says the residents of Burlington “have learned to coexist naturally and in unison with the bears.” He says black bears tend to shy away from confrontation and that, “at this time, I don’t see a need for a hunting season.”

Still, Rego suggests that a bear-hunting season would not pose any threat to the greater black bear population, nor the population within Connecticut. He says it could withstand, and might even demand, wildlife management via hunting.

“It’s not like there’s a magic number where above it’s okay and below it is not,” he says. “Perhaps the bigger issue is that every year there are more and more conflicts with bears, and a growing and expanding bear population. The question is: Is the public happy with that trend continuing?”

If DEEP decides black bear numbers require management and hunting is permitted, it will be private hunters who take up the call—and who will pay a handsome fee for the privilege. Bob Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, says if the bear population needs to be curbed, he knows plenty of hunters that will be happy to do it.

“There will be a clamor for bear tags,” says Crook. “It’s a moneymaker for the DEEP, and the DEEP is traditionally underfunded. So this is a good program for the hunters, the citizenry and DEEP. Everybody wins.”

Except, perhaps, the bears.


Hunting Bear in Connecticut Continues to Be a Hotly Debated Question

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