I saw my first bear this summer. I was working from home in New Fairfield, a small town on the New York border in northern Fairfield County, when my normally quiet, 34-pound labradoodle retriever transformed into full beast mode. She flung her paws against the window, accenting furious barks with deep, guttural growls, unlike any sound I’d heard her make before.
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Walking onto my front porch, I saw a large black bear, lazily picking through the spoils of my garbage can, which he — I learned later this bear was probably male — had previously knocked over and opened.
I moved back into the house, flinging the door shut behind me. A moment later, prompted by my wife — whose motives I’m only now beginning to suspect — I ventured out again, to do what so many of us do when we encounter one of the Northeast’s most powerful predators: take a photo. As my camera clicked, the bear looked up from his food. Our eyes met.
2018 might be the year of the bear in Connecticut. Bear numbers swelled to about 800, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, a population size not seen here in more than 150 years. Reported bear incidents also reached all-time highs, with more than 7,850 sightings reported to DEEP between October 2017 and September of this year.
In August, a bear walked through the automatic doors of a Bristol liquor store, and by October there were at least 25 reported instances of bears entering Connecticut homes this year. That is nearly twice the 2017 full-year total of 13 bear home entries, and far more than the yearly average of about six.
Bears have been seen in about 140 of Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities. They are found in greatest numbers in Litchfield County, western Hartford County and the northern portions of both Fairfield and New Haven counties. However, they are moving south in Fairfield and New Haven counties, and have been spotted more frequently east of the Connecticut River, though there are no permanent bear establishments there as of yet. DEEP estimates Connecticut can support about 3,000 bears.
“As the population continues to grow and expand you will see them push into new territory,” says Chris Collibee, DEEP spokesman.
You will also likely see new proposals to legalize the limited hunting of bears, which is currently illegal in the state.
Earlier this year, DEEP supported legislative efforts to allow for a limited bear hunt in Litchfield County. The proposal was voted down by the Legislature’s Environment Committee 21-8. As with similar proposals in the past, it met with fierce resistance from animal rights and environmental groups including the Connecticut chapter of the Sierra Club and Darien-based Friends of Animals, whose members point to statistics showing many more people die from hunting accidents than from bear attacks.
In testimony submitted in March, DEEP Commissioner Robert Klee said, “It is the opinion of our wildlife biologists that bear hunting — with prudent limitations — is consistent with best practices for wildlife management in Connecticut.”
With a new governor scheduled to take office, it is unclear what the state’s position on bear hunts will be going forward, but representatives of groups on both sides of the issue have stances that remain unchanged.
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The Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, a state advocacy organization dedicated to protecting hunting and fishing rights as well as gun rights, has also lobbied the legislature in support of a bear hunt. Bob Crook, executive director of the organization, says that it is expensive for DEEP to deal with problem bears by catching or euthanizing them. “A better, more effective way of getting the population down is to allow hunting,” he says, noting there is interest in hunting bears from Connecticut hunters who would eat the meat and have the hide and fur tanned.
“Maybe somebody has to be killed by one of these bears before we take anything seriously,” he says.
Fran Silverman, communications director of Friends of Animals, which supports a vegan lifestyle, disagrees with Crook’s assessment of the risk. She says a bear hunt is more of a threat than that posed by bears, as hunting accidents are far more common than bear attacks. “In Connecticut, between 2011 and 2016, there’s been 13 accidents and one hunting fatality, and zero bear fatalities,” she says. Silverman adds that from 1982, around when bears first returned to Connecticut, up until 2016 there were 114 hunting accidents and 13 fatalities, while no one was killed by bears over the same time period.
Though there are attacks on livestock and pets each year in Connecticut, bear attacks on humans are exceedingly rare. In 2017, a bear was euthanized after swiping at a woman walking her dog in a Simsbury park, but Collibee from DEEP says, “We’ve never had an overly significant incident of a bear attacking a human, at least in recent memory.”
The bear population in Connecticut was nonexistent by the mid-1800s thanks to aggressive hunting and widespread deforestation to make room for farmland. Black bears survived in western Massachusetts, and after forests returned to much of Connecticut, they began traveling back in the 1980s. Males range from 150 to 450 pounds, and though they are not classified as true hibernators, their body temperature is lowered and heart rate slows during denning periods, generally between late November and mid-March in Connecticut. They commonly den under fallen trees or in brush piles, but varied sites are used including rocky ledges. While denning, they don’t eat, defecate or urinate, but will usually wake up when disturbed. Though bears are more active between March and November, Collibee says, “it is not unusual to see the occasional bear during the winter months.”
Bears have an excellent sense of smell and will seek out garbage and other food left outside. Though generally shy, and fearful of humans, according to DEEP’s fact sheet, “if they regularly find food near houses and areas of human activity, they can lose their fear of humans.”
Bear-hunt proponents believe a hunt would help instill a healthy fear of humans in more bears. Tracy Rittenhouse, a professor of wildlife ecology in UConn’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, says, “The scientific literature provides good evidence for other wildlife species changing their behavior in response to hunting,” but adds, “I think the evidence in the scientific literature specific to black bears just hasn’t been collected.”
In 2017, Rittenhouse published research showing that the largest bear populations in Connecticut were found on the fringes of suburban areas, rather than in rural areas. These “exurban areas” have woodlands as well as scattered houses, offering bears garbage- and bird feeder-foraging opportunities. More recently, Rittenhouse and colleagues looked at how bears living in low-density neighborhoods navigated through them. Analyzing data from GPS monitors on bear collars in currently unpublished research, they found that as bears travel across the state, on average, they avoid houses and roads, but “there are some [bears] that move through that neighborhood moving almost toward houses and toward roads.”
Rittenhouse says the behavior observed in both studies is most likely not behavior only exhibited by Connecticut bears.
“I’ve not seen anything here in Connecticut that’s completely different than bears in New York or Massachusetts,” says Rittenhouse, who will speak about the increased sightings of bears and other large mammals at an event of the Aspetuck Land Trust on Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Church in Westport. “I think what’s unique about Connecticut is that we have [a lot of neighborhoods with] this housing density that typifies exurban housing development. … What our research has shown is that it’s a housing density that bears really like, too.”
The bear that visited my house and feasted on my garbage was huge. As cute as he looks in pictures, in real life he was terrifying. My wife hasn’t walked the dog at night since his appearance, and every time my dog barks, I go into high alert, scanning the perimeter of the lawn from my windows.
Even so, it would be heartbreaking to see this bear hunted and killed. While not everyone agrees with that sentiment, people on both sides of the bear hunt issue do agree that those of us who live in neighborhoods near bear populations need to take more steps to prevent encounters. These include keeping garbage in a shed or garage, not leaving bird feeders out from March till late November and storing grills inside. Bear sightings can be reported to DEEP through its website at ct.gov/deep. Those requiring immediate assistance with a bear should call DEEP’s 24-hour hotline at 860-424-3333.
I’ve heard the saying that “a fed bear is a dead bear,” the notion that feeding a bear, whether intentionally or unintentionally, lures them into more interactions with humans and increases the odds they will end up being euthanized. I took the saying to heart, moving my garbage indoors and attempting to clean my property of anything that might tempt the bear in the future. Bears frequently return to places where they’ve found food in the past, and a few weeks after my initial meeting, my dog once more sprung into beast mode. This time I knew the signs. Looking out the window, I watched as the bear walked down my driveway and past where the garbage used to be. Finding nothing, he kept walking instead of hanging out again. Thankfully, I haven’t seen him since.
*Correction: The original version of this story included a quote incorrectly stating Connecticut was the only state in New England without a bear hunt. Rhode Island does not have one either.