HARTFORD, CT — Allowing hunting of black bears in certain areas of the state has become an annual debate at the state Capitol and Friday saw that conversation renewed on two different bills raised by the Environment Committee.
One of the bills, SB 586, would allow the hunting of black bears in Litchfield County.
The other, SB 894, is to to identify non-lethal management practices that can be employed to deter black bears from habituating in areas densely populated by humans.
As with a lot of issues, whether Connecticut is experiencing an increase in the black bear population seems to depend on which side of the issue you are on.
To those who believe that they state statistics backing their belief and to those who dispute those numbers, they often state that black bear sightings are different than black bear population numbers — i.e. the same black bear can be sighted in multiple towns/locations.
Although the bill that would allow bear hunting is written to allow it in Litchfield County, much of Friday’s testimony centered around the growing bear population in a town in Hartford County — Simsbury.
“I think Simsbury is getting close to Farmington as far as having the highest bear population,” Rep. John Hampton, D- Simsbury, told the committee.
Simsbury Animal Control Officer Mark Rudewicz said that from early spring to fall he is hammered by calls concerning black bears wandering in people’s backyards.
“There are days when I have been on 14 different calls (for bears),” Rudewicz told the committee. “People are very concerned for their safety, for the safety of their property.”
Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, asked Rudewicz whether any humans had been hurt by the bear interactions.
Rudewicz said: “Fortunately we haven’t had anybody seriously hurt. But you can’t minimize that as beautiful as these animals are, they are wild animals, dangerous animals.”
Rudewicz was asked by Cohen whether he was in favor of the non-lethal bill or the one that allowed bear hunting.
He said he didn’t want to speak for anyone other then himself, but he found the problem is that “the bears have lost their fear of humans,” adding that he thinks states that have allowed bear hunting have seen some success in thinning the population.
Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, has been pushing for a black bear hunting season for years. Miner said that while he is not opposed to trying to do everything the state can to better educate members of the public on protecting themselves from black bears, it might be the right time for the state to take “that next step” to allow hunting.
Department of Environmental and Energy (DEEP) Commissioner Designee Katie S. Dykes submitted testimony in support of allowing hunting.
“The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection supports this bill because it provides a valuable tool to address the growing public safety concern associated with the continuous expansion of Connecticut’s black bear population,” Dykes said.
“UConn reports that, as of 2015, there were between 397 and 457 black bear in northwestern Connecticut and bears were most abundant in towns with moderate housing density like Farmington, Simsbury, and Avon,” Dykes said.
“UConn’s results complement DEEP’s findings that the statewide black bear population continues to grow at a rate of nearly 10 percent per year, and is now more than 800 bears aged one year or older. Both studies conclude that, without controls, the population will continue to grow, eventually reaching a statewide total of around 3,000 animals,” Dykes said.
Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, thinks the hunting bill should be expanded to other areas, using Simsbury again as one of his main reasons.
“According to data compiled by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, seven of the top 10 communities with bear sightings are located in Hartford County,” Witkos testified. “Of these towns, five are a part of the 8th Senatorial District which I represent. This legislation needs to take that information into account and expand the scope of this proposal to include these areas of Hartford County.
“The Town of Simsbury has been particularly hard hit by the overpopulation of bears,” Witkos added. “In data compiled by the Town of Simsbury, from 2017 to 2018 there has been a 69.9 percent increase in calls for black bears in that community.”
On the other side, there are plenty of voices who say allowing black bear hunting is the wrong direction to go to address the problem — if it is a problem at all.
The Connecticut League of Conservation Voters (CTLCV) submitted testimony strongly opposing the bear hunting bill.
It said, in part: “Though some may fear bear-human interaction, study after study has shown that recreational hunting does little to reduce attacks. Furthermore, Connecticut already has existing legislation allowing residents to deal with problem bears that threaten humans or destroy crops and property.”
CTLCV and numerous others opposed to bear hunting embraced the intent of the non-lethal management second bill.
“Rather than resort to a knee jerk response and threaten our small bear population with overhunting, Connecticut should focus on education-based strategies to reduce bear-human conflicts: teaching people how to remove attractants like spilled garbage and overflowing birdfeeders, keeping their pets on leashes or indoors and wearing a whistle while hiking,” CTLCV said.
Anti-hunting advocates, however, repeatedly stated that numbers can lie.
“The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection reported 8,922 black bear sightings last year,” said Fran Silverman, communications director for Friends of Animals, a wildlife advocacy organization headquartered in Connecticut.
“The report, however, doesn’t acknowledge that every sighting is not a different black bear,” Silverman said.
The non-lethal management bill’s stated purpose is to have the Commissioner of DEEP submit a plan on best practices to deter black bears from habituating in areas that are densely populated by humans.
Those practices, the bills states, could include: “attractant management practices and recommendations; non-lethal hazing devices, including noises and physical deterrents that decrease black bear use of densely populated human areas; education programs that instruct and encourage the general public to improve their use of attractant management practices; and community planning strategies that consider black bear territory in making land use and waste management plans within municipalities.”