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After record year of bears breaking into homes, CT lawmakers again float idea of a hunt

A black bear wandering through a Connecticut yard was photographed by a DEEP wildlife biologist responding to a bear call.
Provided Photograph
Ct. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
A black bear wandering through a Connecticut yard was photographed by a DEEP wildlife biologist responding to a bear call.

The number of human-bear conflicts in Connecticut skyrocketed last year. Among them was one involving a 10-year-old boy who was injured in October after being attacked by a black bear in a backyard in western Connecticut. Meanwhile, officials reported 67 home break-ins statewide in 2022, a record number that wildly outpaced annual numbers from the previous five years.

Now the battle over allowing a bear hunting season in Connecticut is again surfacing in the state legislature. Republican Rep. Karen Reddington-Hughes, whose district includes Morris, where the boy was attacked, has introduced a bill to authorize a black bear hunt in the northwestern part of the state.

“This is really to control the bear population, it is not to eliminate the bear population,” Reddington-Hughes said.

But the General Assembly’s Animal Advocacy Caucus argues that hunting won’t stop bears from entering neighborhoods if nothing is done to stop the human behavior that is drawing bears to yards.

Reps. David Michel, D-Stamford, and Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Derby, who served on the Animal Advocacy Caucus, introduced a bill to essentially ban the feeding of wildlife using equipment like bird feeders. The proposal would also provide funding to towns and farmers to purchase non-lethal equipment, such as electric fencing and bear-resistant trash containers, to reduce human-bear conflicts.

Will hunting reduce human and bear conflicts? Depends whom you ask.

Dave Wattles, a black bear and furbearer biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said hunting is needed to manage the black bear population.

“There’s very little natural mortality of bears, so hunting is the means of controlling the growth of the population,” Wattles said.

He also said GPS data taken from some bears killed by hunters in Massachusetts shows that some were “heavily using residential areas in cities and towns.” Massachusetts has had regulated bear hunting seasons for decades.

But a study published in January’s The Journal of Wildlife Management looked at pilot spring hunting seasons in Ontario in 2014 and 2015 and found that they did not decrease human-bear incidents.

Dr. Eric Howe, an analytical research biologist for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and a co-author of the study, said that “in theory, if you hunt in the spring, you’re removing those bears just before the time when most human-bear interactions would occur.”

But he said even though hunters killed more bears during the pilot hunting seasons, “human-bear interactions did not decrease. In fact, they seem to go up,” Howe said.

The study’s authors also found that when natural foods, like berries and acorns, are in short supply, the number of human-bear conflicts increases. Last year, Connecticut suffered a widespread acorn crop failure.

Not a bear problem, but a bird feeder problem?

Laura Simon, a wildlife ecologist with the Connecticut Coalition to Protect Bears, said bans against intentionally and unintentionally feeding wildlife are essential. A handful of Connecticut towns already have local ordinances against bird feeders.

“We need everybody doing the same thing. If you have one [bird] feeder out there, that person is going to create problems for everybody,” Simon said at a January meeting of the Animal Advocacy Caucus.

Wattles said “the No. 1 bane of my existence is bird feeders.” He said they train black bears to come into people’s yards. “The problems will not go away if the feeders aren’t removed,” Wattles said.

Reddington-Hughes said all Connecticut residents have a part to play in reducing bear conflicts. She said public service announcements about bear-smart behavior might be necessary. But she did not express support for statewide legislation against feeding wildlife.

Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, is co-chair of the legislature’s Environment Committee, where both bear-related bills were introduced.

He said that if the General Assembly does adopt a new bear policy, “I am confident it would include a rule or restriction on intentional feeding of wildlife.”

A public hearing on the issue likely won’t happen until after February.

Jennifer Ahrens is a producer for Morning Edition. She spent 20+ years producing TV shows for CNN and ESPN. She joined Connecticut Public Media because it lets her report on her two passions, nature and animals.
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