Lawmakers on the legislature’s Environment Committee rejected a proposed bear hunting season in Litchfield County before a Friday vote on policies aimed at managing the growing population of black bears in Connecticut.
With dissenting votes from some Democrats, the panel passed a version of the bill including prohibitions on feeding dangerous animals and permits to allow residents to kill bears deemed to be problematic. However, they removed a provision sought by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to allow a lottery-based hunt in Litchfield County where many of Connecticut’s bears are located.
Prior to the meeting, the panel’s co-chair Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, said the bear hunt language was removed earlier this week following a vote count which indicated the concept did not have adequate support to clear the committee.
“In the interest of not throwing the whole bill out if it doesn’t pass, we pulled out the hunting portion and hopefully we can keep the feeding [provisions],” Gresko said.
Although the state legislature has considered and rejected bear hunts in the past, the issue took on greater significance this year in light of a growing number of incidents involving the animals and humans including a high profile attack of a 10 year-old boy in Morris last year.
According to state environmental officials, human-bear conflicts have more than tripled in the last several years as Connecticut’s black bear population has grown to an estimated count of around 1,100.
Opponents of legalizing a hunt praised the change during Friday’s meeting even if they objected to other elements of the bill. Rep. David Michel, a Stamford Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s animal advocacy caucus, said supporters had engaged in “fear mongering” in order to justify a hunting season.
“Human-bear conflicts happen not because bears are coming after humans,” Michel said. “Those conflicts happen because bears are looking for food.”
Others said the removal of the hunting provision ran counter to the testimony provided to the committee by the Energy and Environmental Protection Department. Rep. Karen Reddington-Hughes, a first term Republican from Woodbury, questioned why the change was made.
“We’re rejecting the recommendations of our governor. We are rejecting the testimony of our paid officials from DEEP and we’re allowing the residents of Connecticut now to legally defend themselves against the bears because we will not,” Reddington-Hughes said.
Sen. Rick Lopes, a New Britain Democrat who co-chairs the committee, joked that even as a veteran lawmaker he did not always understand the reasons why the legislature arrived at the conclusions it did.
“I would say that if we agreed with the governor and the commissioners all the time, there wouldn’t be any reason for us,” Lopes said.
Republicans who vocally opposed the removal of the bear hunt ultimately voted for the bill, despite warnings of a potential public safety risk posed by the animals.
“They do not have any fear of us and until that comes back, we are eventually prey, especially our young ones. They will eat anything,” Rep. Francis Cooley, R-Plainville, said of the bears. “I’ve seen them hunt down goose.”
Meanwhile, some opponents of the hunt, like Michel, opposed the remaining language and voted against the bill. Other lawmakers, like Rep. Mike Demicco, D-Farmington, said state law already provided a process by which farmers and others can receive a permit for killing a nuisance bear. He questioned the bill’s more streamlined and less restrictive process.
“I can envision a situation where this would lead to, I hate to use the term, a bear hunt,” Demicco said. He described a scenario in which a farmer went through the process outlined in the bill and demonstrated that their preliminary efforts to prevent a bear from damaging their crops or livestock had not worked. “This person gets a permit and now what does this person do? Does this person now shoot the next bear that comes on his or her property?”
Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, invited skeptical lawmakers to speak to farmers in her district, where interactions with black bears were a common occurrence.
“They are not interested in sport hunting,” Horn said. “What they want to do is save their farms and their livelihoods. These are small farms and a bear can devastate acres of crops, blueberries, Christmas tree farms, very quickly.”
The bill now moves to the state Senate for consideration.
Even in its altered form, it remains a work in progress. Lawmakers would continue to modify the feeding prohibitions included in the bill as well as provisions allowing someone to protect themselves or a leashed dog from a bear, Gresko said prior to the meeting.