HARTFORD, CT—Another attempt is being made this year to establish a black bear hunting season in Connecticut, specifically in Litchfield County.
The bill, HB 5358, was the subject of an Environment Committee public hearing Friday. If enacted, the hunting rules would duplicate what’s already in place for deer hunters.
This year, it’s a House bill that was was introduced by Rep. Bill Buckbee, R-New Milford, who, in bringing up the measure, said: “It is important to consider a black bear hunting season to help in minimizing the exploding population.”
In Buckbee’s town of New Milford there were 244 black bear sightings between March and October of last year, according to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
There was lots of testimony — mostly opposed — to the bill Friday. One of those received the most warmly was the daughter of Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire.
Eight-year-old Zoe Linehan said she was speaking for her Cheshire schoolmates, who opposed the bill by a 33-3 count.
“The DEEP has special tricks up their sleeves, such as pepper spray,” to make sure the bears stay a safe distance away from humans, Zoe said. She also told the committee, of which her mother is a member of, that “loud noises” can also keep the bears away.
What Zoe made adamantly clear is she, and her classmates are “against bear hunting.”
A similar bill was raised last year by Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, who said the bear population in his district is growing so fast that there is no way to control it.
Last year, the legislation got tripped up in the Senate, where it was turned into a bill to prevent the import, possession, sale or transport of elephants, lions, leopards, or rhinoceroses.
According to testimony, the black bear population has rebounded and bears are now common in parts of Connecticut. Males can generally weigh up to 450 pounds.
The bill as written would have required the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection commissioner to establish a black bear hunting season. DEEP supports the legislation.
“Based on the tagging and tracking data gathered by the DEEP, the department estimates that Connecticut’s black bear population is increasing at a rate of 10 percent per year,” DEEP Commissioner Robert J. Klee said last year. “In the absence of natural predators and with easy access to food sources associated with the presence of humans, it is reasonable to project that the population will continue to increase, with the overall population reaching 3,000 or higher (based upon observed density in similar habitats).”
There are currently about 800 black bears in Connecticut with about 235 in Litchfield County.
DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen told the committee Friday that the epicenter of the bear population in Connecticut is the Northwest corner and they’re starting to run out of room, so the bear population is filtering south.
As that happens, “interactions [between bears and humans] are on the increase,” Whalen said. There are signs that “bears are becoming more comfortable with human interaction and that’s what concerns us.”
DEEP, on it’s website, tracks black bear sightings by town across the state. It’s most recent report shows that there were 5,630 bear sightings in Connecticut between the March and October 2017 time period.
Critics point out, however, that the numbers can be misleading
— stating that one bear can be spotted numerous times in numerous towns.
At the moment, DEEP’s bear management activities involve public outreach and education, research and monitoring, and intervention practices.
DEEP officials say the primary contributing factor to bear nuisance problems is the presence of easily-accessible food sources near homes and businesses. Bears are attracted to garbage, pet food, compost piles, fruit trees, and bird feeders.
The bill also has supporters, such as Richard Daniotti, who submitted testimony in favor.
“The expanding black bear population in this state has been causing more and more human vs. wildlife conflicts each year,” Daniotti said. “Not only are there an increasing amount of nuisance complaints of bears causing property and livestock damage, but public safety issues have come to the forefront as the bear population grows.”
Jesse St. Andre, a Connecticut resident with the Nutmeg State Council of Sportsmen who works for the Massachusetts division of fisheries and wildlife, said the bear population will continue to grow in the state because “there’s nowhere you can put a bear in the state of Connecticut where it doesn’t have access to food.”
He said relocating only goes so far. As a biologist in Massachusetts, he said they take bears in the Boston area and relocate them to the New York border and within five days they’ve made their way back to where they were endangering their lives by crossing so many highways.
“The only valid response to this is active management from a hunting standpoint,” St. Andre said.
He said banging pots and pans together might work to scare away a bear once, but won’t work on an ongoing basis.
But the bill faces plenty of opposition — besides Zoe.
Friends of Animals (FoA), for one, is calling on state lawmakers to shoot down the bill. Instead, lawmakers should be focusing on the real threat, the number of people killed and injured in hunting accidents in the state, FoA said.
“Connecticut lawmakers should not get behind a trophy hunt that puts black bears in the cross-hairs of the gun lobby and encourages more gun violence at a time when it is an epidemic in this nation,” Friends of Animals’ President Priscilla Feral said. “In addition, the normal, average black bear is shy and not looking for conflict. Shooting them isn’t justified morally or scientifically,” she said.
FoA said their own research shows that in the past 24 years 10 people in Connecticut were killed by hunters. During that same period, the group said, no people were killed by black bears.
But DEEP, again on its website, has a fact sheet on the possible dangers to humans of the black bear population.
“Much of Connecticut’s landscape is now forested and is suitable for black bears,” the DEEP statement said. “The rapid increase in the bear population between the 1980s and early 2000s is expected to continue. As the bear population expands, interactions between humans and bears will increase.”