Credit: Courtesy of DEEP

Legislation signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Ned Lamont will prohibit the intentional feeding of bears, allow the state to issue permits to kill the animals for damaging farms and clarify when residents can use deadly force against a bear in self defense. 

The bill, a legislative response to a growing number of conflicts between Connecticut residents and the state’s rising black bear population, was the end result of an intense back and forth that spanned this year’s legislative session. 

“The number of bears, the population, continues to increase,” said Rep. Joe Gresko, a Stratford Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Environment Committee. “This is their native range so it’s not like we’re being invaded by a non-native species. They were here before we were and they’re returning to their range.” 

That return has manifested in historic numbers of bear sightings — there have been more 5,300 sightings so far during 2023, according to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection — as well as conflicts. 

Last year, the agency reported more than 3,500 human and bear encounters, up from just 1,000 in 2019. Those encounters have included bears forcing their way into homes, destroying agriculture, and, some cases, injuring people. 

Under the bill, which takes effect in October, residents can use deadly force to kill bears attempting to enter an occupied building or for attempting to harm a person or a pet. The new law also allows DEEP to issue permits to kill bears that damage or threaten to damage crops or farm animals if a property owner can first demonstrate that non-lethal tactics failed to deter the bear. 

A third provision creates an infraction for intentionally feeding “potentially dangerous animals” like bobcats, coyotes, foxes and bears. Fines under the new law would range from $35 to $90 plus additional surcharges.

The bill was scaled back considerably over the course of the legislative session. 

Prior to passage, lawmakers removed proposed restrictions on the inadvertent feeding of the animal through bird feeders or unsecured trash barrels. 

Meanwhile, animal rights advocates succeeded in defeating a proposed bear hunt in Litchfield County, which had been sought by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. In March, the agency argued that Connecticut was the only state in the region with a reproducing bear population that did not permit some form of bear hunting.

“We didn’t have the votes for a bear hunt,” Gresko said Wednesday. “So as opposed to letting the bill die in committee on a negative vote, I proposed to the advocates that we remove the hunt but keep going to make other changes.”

Even the scaled-back proposal proved unpalatable for many legislators who worried it provided too much flexibility to kill the animals in response to a problem, which they argue is caused in large part by human behavior. 

During a floor debate earlier this month, Rep. Mike Demicco, D-Farmington, worried that farmers issued permits by DEEP may abuse the system by killing bears unnecessarily. 

“What is to prevent that person from abusing that permit and shooting a bear — any bear that happens upon his or her property?” Demicco said. “I think that is problematic.”

Others worried the issue may persist in the absence of restrictions on unintentional feeding or, in other cases, a bear hunt. 

Although he expected lawmakers would keep an eye on Connecticut’s bear statistics, Gresko said he did not believe his committee would revisit the issue until after the next election cyle. 

“Why am I going to do this again if it’s going to be the same vote?” he said. “However, as DEEP lets us know how many bears we have in the state, we see how many human-bear interactions, how many times bears have found their way into people’s homes — those numbers will be watched and monitored closely and we will adjust accordingly.”