Lawmakers on the state Environment Committee will weigh at least two proposals this year to manage Connecticut’s expanding black bear population amid an increasing number of resident encounters with the animals.
Since the session began earlier this month, legislators have proposed one bill that would require the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to develop a comprehensive bear management program. Another bill would authorize a black bear hunting lottery in the northwestern region of the state.
The proposals come as black bears continue to make a surging comeback in Connecticut after being eliminated in the state during the 1800s. Last year, state environmental officials estimated that more than 1,000 bears now reside in Connecticut.
Although state lawmakers have considered proposals to authorize limited bear hunting in the past, the concept has proven controversial and stalled out in the legislative process. However, an incident in October when a bear injured a 10-year-old boy in Morris, has some legislators rethinking the issue.
Earlier this month, Rep. Joe Gresko, a Stratford Democrat who co-chairs the Environment Committee, said the Morris incident served as a wakeup call that something needed to be done to manage the bear population.
“I think the state and especially the 10-year-old boy got lucky,” Gresko said. “It could have been a lot worse. That was our warning bell. So what do you do? I’m willing to entertain the whole gambit.”
Gresko said that included entertaining the idea of a bear hunt, which he said should be targeted at animals with a habit of appearing in backyards and not those “minding their own business” in the woods. He said the proposal should be limited and paired with other management policies like discouraging residents from feeding the animals.
“If we’re going to do this, it has to be a process where you can’t intentionally feed these guys,” Gresko said. “It’s ‘Oh look, Yogi’s back in my yard because I put out bird seed. I’m going to put him on video on my Facebook page.’ Then next week Yogi’s in your sunroom saying ‘Where’s dinner?’ That’s what we’ve got to deal with.”
Things like food, garbage and bird seed tend to attract bears, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which recommends that residents remove bird feeders from late March through November.
“Never feed bears,” the agency said in a fact sheet on the animals. “Bears that associate food with people may become bold, aggressive, and dangerous. This may lead to personal injury, property damage, and the need to euthanize problem animals.”
In an interview Friday, Rep. Pat Callahan, New Fairfield lawmaker who serves the ranking House Republican on the Environment Committee, said that public education should be part of the solution the panel eventually adopts.
“We have to educate people that when there’s a bear on their property, don’t go out and start taking pictures. Grab a pot and pan and bang it, scare them out of there,” he said. “Let them know that’s not their territory.”
Callahan, who has proposed a bill tasking DEEP with drafting a bear management plan, said he expects policies looking at bear-proof trash receptacles and potentially bear hunting to be part of the discussion.
“No one wants beautiful animals destroyed but the fact is there’s animals being euthanized now,” he said. “At this stage of the game we’re weighing the facts.”
Gresko said he expects the idea of a bear hunt to remain contentious among some of his colleagues and would be looking to House and Senate leaders for an indication it had a chance at final passage before putting such a bill to a vote in his committee.