Smarter than the average bear: They’re big, smart and getting bolder [Rep-Am]

April 4, 2022

From the Waterbury Republican-American:


Rob Keller never heard the silent, giant black paws of a bear lurking 10 feet from the couch where he was sleeping in the overnight hours of March 16 and didn’t remember leaving an outside door unlocked when he awoke to find it open.


A security camera in the home recorded the culprit: a large untagged bear’s stealthy midnight search for food. Dubbed Yogi for its intelligence, the bear paused after gently tipping over a tall potted plant and decided against entering the room where Keller was sleeping in front of the television. Instead, it picked up a box ready for mailing and containing triple-wrapped cookie-making kits, and took it outside to dine.


The bear, believed to be a male and hungry after occasional winter slumbers, returned an hour later to resume its search.
In 30 years of living in the home, Rob and his wife, Lisa, said they’ve only seen bears in the past year and a half. Since then, they’ve stopped feeding birds, properly secure garbage and refrain from outdoor barbecues.


Still, fearless bears are increasing in number and venturing ever closer. They’re snoozing under urban porches, crossing busy roads and causing fatal crashes, and breaking into homes and barns in increasing numbers.


Although fatal bear attacks have been documented in New Jersey and New York, none are on record here.


“They’ve thrown off the balance of nature,” Keller said. “They’re killing fawns and claiming food sources and aren’t afraid of humans.”


Keller and several of his neighbors, whose lives also have been interrupted by Yogi and other bears, are hoping lawmakers can enact a hunting season.
Repeated attempts to pass legislation to allow limited hunting seasons like in Massachusetts and New York so far have failed. The latest was a bill that would have allowed farmers or their designated agents to hunt bears and other wildlife that destroy crops, livestock, poultry or apiaries. It failed to pass the legislature’s Environment Committee last week by a vote of 18-13.


Among those rejecting the measure was Rep. Maria Horn D-Salisbury, who favors nonlethal controls, education and aversive conditioning with paintball and rubber bullets. Electric fencing is recommended as a means of keeping bears from livestock and bees.


There isn’t enough political support in the state for a hunt, said Horn, who concedes there is no proven means of slowing a population that is swelling past 1,200 and expanding exponentially as 80% of cubs survive to adulthood. Sightings have been reported in 156 of the state’s 169 municipalities, with the highest concentrations in Litchfield County.


Horn suggested better enforcement of rules against the feeding of bears, but acknowledges that staffing shortages make those rules difficult to enforce. Without easy access to garbage and other human food, she said quoting wildlife studies, reproduction rates will slow.


Shortly after the vote, the Connecticut animal rights advocacy group Connecticut Votes for Animals wrote “we did it,” calling the measure a “dangerous expansion of hunting wildlife, including bears and bobcat, under the guise of protecting agricultural crops.”


Sen. Craig A. Miner, R-Litchfield, a longtime supporter of a limited bear hunt in Litchfield County, said it’s the only effective means of putting the bears in check as the public safety risk increases.


As the law now exists, a bear can only be legally taken if its caught in the act of killing livestock.


“What is less clear is something like damage to a corn field since it would be virtually impossible to determine which bear or bears caused it,” said DEEP spokesman Will Healey. The state agency supports hunting as “one of the tools in the toolbox” of wildlife management.


In Cornwall, Buddy Hurlburt is losing thousands of dollars worth of corn in his fields every year. Aversive conditioning would only turn them to nighttime marauders, he said, when they can’t be legally taken.


“I am losing 3 1/2 acres out of 18 acres and it’s getting worse,” Hurlburt said. “We’re saturated with bears. You can’t put an electric fence around an 18-acre cornfield.”


Hurlburt and his wife, Irene, tried to move their bird feeder to the second floor, posting it on the side of the house. A bear tore the vinyl siding off in an attempt to reach it.
Aversive conditioning hasn’t worked in the Lime Rock section of Salisbury where Yogi growled at Martin Whalen across the street on Forge Lane as it tried to push its way through a door after breaking a window. It is more aggressive than previous bear visitors, including several that were tagged.


Tagged bears indicate they were identified as part of biological studies to help track their movements, not because they were problems. The color of the tag corresponds with the year they were captured, with pink used for 2021, blue in 2020 and green in 2019.


Up the hill, Doug Howes said banging on pot lids isn’t working as well as it used to.


“There are a lot of them around and they are multiplying like crazy,” said Howes, who views a hunting season as the only remedy.
Even Horn concedes that current trends put the bears on a collision course with violence as interactions with humans increase.


A large barrel trap was placed by DEEP outside the Keller’s home last week. When it attracted only raccoons, it was a moved to a neighbor’s home. So far, Yogi has lived up to its reputation as not your average bear and eluded capture, despite offers of sticky chocolate syrup, cat food and baked goods. If it gets caught, a determination would then have to be made to euthanize or move it.