Bears to Residents: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

By Priscilla Feral

Originally published in The Register Citizen, 8 February 2019

Hunters in Connecticut killed ten people and injured 114 in hunting accidents between 1982 and 2016. Compare that to the number of people killed by black bears in the state — zero.

But once again the measly one percent of CT residents who hunt are making noise, stoking fear and sounding alarm bells, fueled by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s (DEEP) report that from Jan. 18 to Dec. 12 of last year, there were 8,922 reported sightings. The report doesn’t acknowledge that every sighting is not a different black bear.

Supposedly 311 sightings occurred in New Milford, the hometown of Rep. Bill Buckbee, who has introduced legislation for a bear hunt in Litchfield County to reduce the population by 5 percent. DEEP, of course, would make money off the hunting licenses.

Hunting will never solve bear-human conflict issues because a dead bear doesn’t teach the live ones not to try to eat seeds from a bird feeder or food from a garbage can.

While it may be a new experience for some Connecticut residents to see black bears in their neighborhoods, UConn professor and ecologist Tracy Rittenhouse, who led a four-year research project studying the state’s black bear population, has said she thinks it’s uplifting there’s an animal who is actually able to survive in a state with 3.6 million people.

So does Friends of Animals.

There are a lot of species declining — six mammals, 18 birds, four reptiles, two amphibians and five fish are already endangered in Connecticut, not to mention the species who are threatened. Black bears were extirpated from the state in the early 1900s because of hunting.

Rittenhouse’s study, published 2016, reveals that Connecticut’s black bear population isn’t increasing so much that suddenly they are running amok. Instead, she discovered that black bears and residents like to live in the same places, which is in closer proximity to humans than expected. Hence some increased sightings. The highest concentration of bears in the state are in “exurban” areas — higher than in rural forests where there are no human houses and higher than in well-developed suburbs. Exurban areas have between 6 and 49 houses per kilometer squared.

It is thought that exurban development provides bears with the perfect balance of natural forest cover and extra food sources, but not too many people.

stock photography
North American Black Bear cubs in a tree.

All of this explains why when Rittenhouse completed her research in 2014, she discovered only about 400 adult bears in the state, yet DEEP received more than 4,600 reports of black bear sightings in the state that year. She had collected 734 different hair samples in the northwestern part of the state where she set up “hair corrals,” yet only 235 of those were unique bears.

DEEP already has a nuisance bear program. But to truly avoid conflict and be good neighbors to bears, humans have to modify their behaviors.

Dispose of garbage and recycling in a bear-proof manner. It’s the No. 1 way to prevent human-bear conflict at your home. Practices like only feeding birds in the winter or installing electric fencing around attractants can not only reduce conflicts now, but may reduce the proliferation of unwanted behaviors as the bear population grows. Keeping accessible doors and windows closed and locked will also help. Also, burn food residue off barbecues after each use and ensure the grease tray/can is empty and clean. Keep compost and your vehicle clean and odor free. Lastly, when walking your dog, keep them leashed and give bears space to graze.

Connecticut also needs to strengthen its regulations preventing wildlife feeding, a strategy that has worked in Virginia and Florida.

Bears, by the way, are actually shy creatures who aren’t looking for conflict, according to DEEP’s own biologist. Bears are here to stay so residents should start enjoying their new neighbors.

And if they can’t, perhaps it’s time they move to the city. Not the bears, the humans.


Priscilla Feral is president of Darien-based Friends of Animals, a non-profit, international animal advocacy organization, incorporated in the state of New York since 1957. Friends of Animals advocates for the rights of nonhuman animals, free-living and domestic. Our goal is to free animals from cruelty and institutionalized exploitation around the world.


 

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