Black bear enters West Hartford home
A black bear is shown inside a West Hartford, Connecticut home on Sunday, July 31, 2022. Credit: Courtesy image

While the rest of the world is focused on the congressional midterm and statewide elections that take place in two weeks, we in Connecticut were recently reminded that all too often it takes a tragedy to spur the government into taking action to protect human life. Such was the case after the Sandy Hook massacre. While tragedy has been averted, we may still have reached that point of action after a 250-pound black bear mauled a 10-year-old boy in the Litchfield County town of Morris and attempted to drag him off into the woods for lunch.

In an act of heroism, the boy’s disabled grandfather navigated his wheelchair over to the kid and threw a flat metal bar at the bear, striking it on the head and causing the animal to release the grandson and flee. But the bear soon returned and was using its claws in an attempt to turn the boy on its back.

Fortunately, the beast was frightened off by neighbors, though after everyone had found shelter it did return a third time, peering menacingly inside the house, only to be frightened away again, this time by a state trooper. The male bear was later shot and killed by a conservation officer from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

Will this latest brush with tragedy prod the General Assembly into taking action that would diminish the threat of future attacks? They will if state Sen. Craig Miner has anything to do with it. Miner, who hails from Litchfield and used to be my auto mechanic when I lived in the town, represents the 30th Senate District, which includes most of Connecticut’s Northwest Corner. Miner has co-sponsored legislation in the past to reduce the number of black bears in Connecticut.

After Miner’s bill got tripped up in the Senate four years ago, GOP Rep. Bill Buckbee of New Milford introduced legislation the following year allowing for the establishment of a bear hunting season that would essentially replicate what’s already in place for deer hunting season.

The bill was supported by DEEP but died in the General Assembly’s Environment Committee, which voted overwhelmingly to reject it after hearing from school children and environmentalists who argued that there are more humane and effective ways of controlling the bear population.

Now Miner, whose district includes the victim’s town, is back on his soapbox, asking Gov. Ned Lamont to issue an executive order that would allow hikers to carry guns in state parks.

“They’ve trashed people’s houses,” Miner told WTNH. “They’ve killed people’s livestock. They’ve killed their pets.”

There’s one problem with Miner’s request. Lamont’s office says he doesn’t have the authority. Miner’s request would require a change in state law, said Lamont spokesperson Anthony M. Anthony.

The reasons for supporting bear hunting are obvious: they can be dangerous animals and have no real natural predators. They pose a threat not only to humans, but to dogs, cats and assorted farm animals.

State Rep. David L. Wilson, like Miner, a Republican from Litchfield, recently told The Courant the number of home invasions by bears in Connecticut already has reached a record of 66 in 2022, with more than two months still left in the year. For some perspective, there were 35 in 2021 and 45 in 2020, according to DEEP, which estimates the bear population in Connecticut has doubled over the last decade to 1,200.

Obviously, the root causes of bear advancement on human territory have to be examined and addressed. Yes, thoughtless people not only leave garbage out where animals can raid it, but they sometimes actually feed the bears. It goes without saying that this behavior needs to stop, though as Jesse St. Andre, who works for the Massachusetts division of fisheries and wildlife, told the environment committee in 2018, the bear population will continue to grow here because “there’s nowhere you can put a bear in the state of Connecticut where it doesn’t have access to food.” 

Furthermore, the black bears I have encountered in my neighborhood have obviously lost their fear of humans as they have become habituated. Black bears are less aggressive than their cousins, the grizzlies in western North America. Still, earlier this summer, a black bear that broke into multiple homes in Canton was later found and euthanized by DEEP.

Several towns, including my town of Salisbury, have enacted ordinances that forbid the intentional feeding of bears. Violations would result in a $100 fine, but it’s not clear how offenders would be caught. Nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction. But what about people who carelessly leave flimsy garbage containers out? Or who place bird feeders where bears can reach them? The ordinances appear to be silent on that.

Increased development has also expanded the human footprint far beyond what it used to be, so it stands to reason that people will bump up against them more often. But it’s also true, as DEEP points out, that while black bears had all but disappeared from Connecticut by the mid-19th century, their resurgence is due “in part, to the regrowth of forestland throughout the region following the abandonment of farms during the late 1800s.” Where I live in the Northwest Corner, forest regrowth also accelerated as a result of the end of the iron industry era, when vast acreage was cleared of trees in order to mine ore and produce charcoal for smelting kilns.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is opposed to hunting just about anything, calling bear hunting a “cruel pastime” that “disrupts migration and hibernation patterns … destroys families” and has “nothing to do with ‘conservation’ or ‘population control.'” 

“There are circumstances in which we must aggressively defend ourselves, whether against a bear or a human, but this unusual incident is no more an excuse for trigger-happy hunters to run around gunning down bears than for vigilantes to start shooting any human they see after a mugging,” PETA spokesperson Catie Cryar told WTNH, making little distinction between human and animal.

Of course, animal predators do much the same thing as humans with rifles do, but the black bears’ predators are mostly animals that are rare or no longer in our region: mountain lions; wolves; grizzly bears. So without humans there is little else to hold the population in check.

Of the New England states, Connecticut and Rhode Island are alone in not allowing for a bear hunting season. New York allows bear hunting in select portions of the state, while New Jersey’s bear hunting season was abolished last year with the backing of Gov. Phil Murphy. Massachusetts has a series of two-week seasons in the fall.

As noted above, opinions of the issue seem to break down along the lines of those who insist changes in human behavior can adequately address the problem and others want to control the bear population with a hunting season. Why can’t we do both?

The General Assembly would be wise to pass legislation in the next session allowing for a limited bear hunting season, perhaps with licenses issued via lottery. A statewide ban on feeding bears wouldn’t be a bad idea either. It shouldn’t take a child’s death to prompt action.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

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