Connecticut lawmakers weighed legalizing bear hunting during a Friday hearing on a bill backed by the governor’s administration and intended to address an escalating number of conflicts between humans and the animals, including at least two attacks last year.
The legislature’s Environment Committee heard public testimony on a bill that would create a lottery-based hunting season in Litchfield County, where most of the animals are concentrated, being landlocked on the west half of the state by the Connecticut River and the combined deterrent of I-91 and I-84, which together bisect the state’s northwest corner.
The state’s General Assembly has reliably put down similar proposals in the past. The state Senate took the unusual action of explicitly rejecting a bear hunting bill back in 2019, preserving Connecticut’s distinction as the only Northeast state with a significant bear population that does not have some form of bear hunting.
However, much of this year’s bill comes from the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the agency’s officials told the committee that it had reported a record number of incidents related to the animals last year.
Once a rarity in Connecticut, the state estimated that the black bear population had grown to between 1,100 and 1,200. In 2019, the agency reported around 1,000 human-bear conflicts. Last year, that number exceeded 3,500.
“The statistics that we’re seeing in the bear report are showing an increased and steady incline, not just in the number of bear conflicts but also in the severity of bear conflicts,” Deputy Commissioner Mason Trumble said.
Some of those incidents have made for striking headlines. Last year, a bear injured a 10 year-old boy in Morris in a harrowing incident witnessed by the boy’s grandfather and neighbor. “I saw his leg in the bear’s mouth and the bear trying to drag him across the lawn,” the boy’s grandfather told the Waterbury Republican American. The bear was euthanized later that day.
On Friday, state officials told the committee that a second attack occurred last year in Torrington, where a bear injured a resident who chose not to disclose the incident.
“It was a woman who preferred not to have that attack publicized,” Jenny Dickson, director of DEEP’s Wildlife Division, said. “She did sustain injuries. They were mild injuries. She did seek medical treatment and that was sort of the end of the incident.”
The bill would create permits under which residents could kill bears under certain circumstances. Bears that damage crops, those that harm livestock, pets, bees or people could also be put down. So too could bears that enter occupied buildings. At 67 home invasions, bears entered Connecticut houses in record numbers last year. Dozens more tried, according to DEEP.
However, animal advocates, of which there are many on both sides of the aisle, argue that Connecticut doesn’t have a bear problem so much as a people problem. People have inadvertently caused the conflicts by feeding the animals or leaving trash unsecured, they contended. They brought a bear-resistant trash container as a prop to a morning press conference.
While proponents of a bear hunt argue that the Milford incident should serve as a wakeup call for Connecticut, animal advocates prefer to reference another incidence of human-bear conflict, which occurred last year in Newtown where a homeowner shot and killed a black bear known locally as “Bobbi the Bear.” The shooting orphaned two cubs, which have since been relocated out of state.
During the press conference, Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, spoke at length about Bobbi the Bear and the law enforcement investigation into the death, which he called “less thoroughly handled as it could have been.”
“There was no justice. There was no trial. It just got really swept away,” Bolinksy said. “Long story short we had a dead mama bear — by the way, one that was so damn popular in the state of Connecticut that her Facebook page had much more activity than mine does.”
Bolinsky’s joke earned polite laughter from supporters and snickers from a small group of hunting advocates seated in the conference room of the Legislative Office Building. Someone muttered “traitor” early in the Newtown Republican’s remarks.
Critics of the bill questioned DEEP’s bear population estimates and said that a hunt carried out in the forests of Litchfield County would do little to suppress conflict with the habituated bears approaching and entering suburban homes.
“Clearly, those habituated bears are not hanging out deep in the wild. That’s where people go hunting,” said Rep. David Michel, a Stamford Democrat who co-chairs an animal advocacy caucus within the legislature. “They don’t go hunting behind residences.”
The proposal before the Environment Committee does take steps to discourage habituation of bears. It prohibits residents from feeding “potentially dangerous animals,” a term the bill describes as including at least bears, bobcats, coyotes and foxes.
Early in this year’s legislative session, the committee’s co-chair, Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, said he expected that the idea of adopting a bear hunt in Connecticut would remain controversial. He intended to look to the leaders of the House and Senate for an indication that such a proposal had a chance at final passage before putting the bill to a vote before his committee.
During Friday’s hearing, Gresko questioned DEEP officials whether additional environmental officers, rather than a bear hunt, may more effectively manage habituated bears. He said he preferred to address the problem with a “scalpel rather than a shotgun.” The agency suggested that the approach would not mitigate the problem and that Connecticut still lacked the bear management tools available to other, similarly situated states.
Either way, prior to the hearing, Gresko said the Environment Committee would indeed vote on a bear hunt before its deadline to pass bills later this month. Does that vote indicate some level of support from legislative leaders? A chance the bill might see final passage? Gresko wouldn’t go that far.
“Let’s read it more as not immediate opposition [from leaders],” he said.
One way or another, the legislature looks likely to take some action on bear management this year, whether that will involve hunting or killing the animals remains to be seen.