Frustrated by bears, CT farmers support bill that would ease rules on shooting of ‘nuisance’ wildlife [CT Post]

March 16, 2022

From the CT Post:


With efforts stalled to declare an open season on bear hunting in Connecticut, farmers and other proponents of culling the population of wild animals have changed tactics in hopes of making it easier for landowners to shoot and kill “nuisance” wildlife.


The latest focus of those efforts is a bill that would remove many of the regulations that farmers say prevent them from effectively dealing with nuisance animals, and that wildlife activists say are effective safeguards for protecting wild populations of predators such as bears.


The issue stems from Connecticut’s surging population of black bears, which wildlife experts estimate now numbers around 1,200 — with bears found in nearly every corner of the state.


Black bears — a species that was once exterminated across the state — are often considered pests by farmers, who say the bears devour crops and destroy bee hives in search of honey. In suburban areas, bears are coming into more frequent contact with humans and pets, prompting state wildlife officials to issue guidance to residents living in proximity to bears.


Despite those concerns, lawmakers have rebuffed efforts dating at least a decade to cull the bear population with an annual hunt.


“We don’t have any way to control the bear population,” said Ted Jones, owner of Jones Apiaries in Farmington. “They’re expanding and going after crops and livestock — and we cannot do anything about it.”


While farmers such as Jones expressed hope that the new legislation would make it easier to get permits to kill bears and other animals causing damage, their efforts were complicated Monday when Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes told lawmakers that it was unclear whether the bill, as written, would actually allow landowners to kill bears.


Dykes — who has supported past efforts to allow bear hunting — told members of the Environment Committee that the legislation could conflict with existing laws that govern nuisance wildlife and prohibit the killing of bears. She said she has asked for an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office to clarify the bill.


“To the extent that this provision could be utilized to address agricultural damage associated with bears, we’re simply bringing to the committee’s attention that further clarification in the bill would be helpful with respect to bears,” Dykes said.


The sponsor of the legislation, state Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.


Animal-rights activists also spoke fervently against the legislation Tuesday, arguing that it would remove existing provisions in the law requiring landowners to use non-lethal methods to deal with nuisance animals, leading to more indiscriminate killing.


Annie Hornish, the Connecticut state director for the Humane Society of the United States, called the bill a “sneaky, backdoor way to expand hunting of all wildlife, including bears and bobcats.”


“This bill would make it so any landowner or lessee with livestock, chickens or bees could invoke a hunt,” Hornish said in written testimony. “This bill does nothing to encourage prevention of conflicts, such as public education and protection of crops and livestock from harm, nor is there any mandate to explore humane and efficacious non-lethal solutions first, before being issued a permit to kill.”


Despite the public testimony on Monday skewing largely against the bill, farmers said they have been left with few remaining options for dealing with nuisance wildlife.


In Farmington, Jones said DEEP’s efforts to trap and remove bears from land he leases for beehives had proved ineffectual — with the animals causing $5,000 in damage over the last five years. More recently, Jones said he installed electric fences, though he said the bears will soon figure out a way around that obstacle, too.


“Once a bear gets a taste of honey, it will never go away,” Jones said.


One Republican on the Environment Committee, state Sen. Craig Miner of Litchfield said farmers in his largely rural district are fed up with the lack of progress in years of efforts to address the bear problem.


“What do I tell the beekeepers? What do I tell the folks that lose multiple acres of sweet corn, what do I tell them?” Miner said. “It doesn’t seem to matter what approach we try, there’s always the same response from the same group saying, ‘You’re not trying hard enough.’”


The co-chair of the committee, state Sen. Christine Cohen, D- Guilford, said on Tuesday that revisions to the legislation were warranted to address the concerns raised by DEEP and animal-rights advocates.


“I believe we need to understand what the agricultural community is up against here, what methods of deterrence and prevention have been established and what would be the appropriate next steps,” Cohen said in a text message.


Connecticut and Rhode Island are the only states in New England without a legal bear hunting season. Bear hunting is also allowed in New York and New Jersey, though the later state suspended its annual hunt beginning in 2020.


DEEP regulates hunting seasons for deer, gamebirds, small mammals and fur-bearing animals such as coyotes, foxes and raccoons. The state’s existing game laws also allow farmers to trap fur-bearing animals that damage farmland.