State expert: Bears becoming ‘public safety issue’ | Rep-Am

December 19, 2022

From the Waterbury Republican-American:


State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection wildlife biologist Jason Hawley has spent 17 years studying the growing bear population in Connecticut and admiring the ability of the species to thrive.


As much as Hawley appreciates the opportunity to pursue his passion on an almost daily basis, however, he would appreciate fewer of the furry subjects within the state’s borders, particularly in Litchfield County and western Hartford County.


Hawley was among the panelists in a bear safety seminar Wednesday at Five Points Arts Center put on by the Litchfield County 4-H program. A discussion of more than two hours saw renewed calls for a hunt that would reduce the state’s bear population, and lower the number of encounters with humans and livestock.


“We are a state without a bear hunt, so there is no way to manage the population,” Hawley said. “All of the studies done show that bear hunting reduces conflicts.”


Connecticut’s bear population, estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,200, is growing at a rate of 5% to 7% a year, Hawley noted. Efforts to keep bears away from homes and property have had limited success because the animals have become habituated, he said.


“Education is a valuable tool, but it has its limitations,” Hawley said, adding that even what is known as aversive conditioning of bears hasn’t been effective. “Bears have no reason to fear humans and, as a result, our tools are no longer effective. We’re left with a public safety issue that in my opinion is not being addressed.”


There have been nearly 70 home invasions by bears in Connecticut this year, which state Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, one of the panelists, said highlights the need for a hunt to cull their ranks.


“They’re beautiful animals and I’m happy they’re here, but they don’t belong in your house,” Miner said. “I think we’ve been lulled into a belief that they’re never going to harm you.”


Miner described eight futile years of legislative effort to gain approval for a bear hunt.


“Every year there has been a reason, people couldn’t stomach supporting a hunting bill,” Miner said of the legislature. “There has been a lot of effort to add this to the tool box, but some people feel taking the life of a bear is worse than taking the life of a human.”


Legislators attending the seminar were Jay M. Case, R-Winsted, Cindy Harrison, R-Southbury, and Mark Anderson, R-Granby. State Sen.-elect Stephen Harding Jr., R-Brookfield, who will succeed Miner in January, and Rep.-elect Karen Reddington-Hughes, R-Woodbury, who also will take office in January, also attended.


In the wake of the state’s first documented bear attack, on a 10-year-old boy in Morris in October, Hawley described the legislature’s reluctance to approve a hunt as “borderline negligence.”


“That could have been a fatal attack and we’re lucky it wasn’t,” Hawley said. “It was a classic predatory attack where a bear was looking at a person as a source of food.”


The Morris attack saw a male bear grab the boy in the backyard of his grandparents’ home on Route 109 and attempt to drag him into the woods.


Quick action by the boy’s grandfather, James Butler, and a neighbor, Jonathan Digimas, forced the bear to release the boy. The bear later was shot and killed by a DEEP conservation officer.


The mother of the boy was among the crowd of 50 or so who attended the seminar.


She said her son, who was treated for wounds in the hospital after the attack, remains traumatized.


The woman, who declined to give her name, said the decision to attend the seminar and speak about her son was difficult.


“This has been so helpful,” she said. “I’m happy to be here and learning a lot.”


Panelists included DEEP conservation officer Ed Norton, retired conservation officer Keith Schneider and large-animal veterinarian Lisa Dauten of Bantam.


The bear population is growing to a point where there aren’t enough natural food sources for them, Dauten said, leading bears to raid garbage cans and break into homes.


“They are at a density we biologically can’t sustain,” Dauten said. “They’re not safe, they’re not cute and they’re not vegetarians.”