In Connecticut, bear dilemma calls for Canadian solution

To keep people and bears safe, act neighborly like they do up North

Jack Rodolico By Jack Rodolico

A black bear in Connecticut. (Credit: Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection)

Connecticut has a bear problem.

As WNPR and The Connecticut Mirror report, black bear populations are rebounding from historically low numbers, human-bear interactions are on the rise, and Ursus americanus is now costing the state $250 million each year.

As the Constitution State considers creative ways of controlling the population — including a new hunting season — Latitude News wondered if Connecticut (or New Jersey and other East Coast American states with too many bears) could glean any lessons from the other side of the continent.

The Canadian providence of British Columbia has lots (and lots) of black bears. Just over a decade ago, B.C. was “destroying” about 1,000 black bears a year due to negative interactions with humans. But according to an official with the provincial Ministry of the Environment, B.C. residents now have far fewer negative interactions with bears: in the past five years, the province killed an average of 602 bears per year.

The bear population in B.C. has been steady in recent years, and the bear-hunting season does little to diminish the province’s robust bear population. So why are there fewer negative interactions up north, and what can Connecticut residents and others learn from Canada?

Officials in Canada say public education changes human behavior, leading to fewer interspecies encounters.

Connecticut’s new normal

Black bears — along with wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears and other large mammals — were largely killed off about a century ago throughout the United States. In the Northeast, most of their habitat was converted into farmland. And because they were seen as a threat to people and livestock, large predators were typically shot on sight.

A few generations later, many farms are now forests once again, opening up habitat and providing food for large, far-roaming animals like bears. Connecticut’s bear population — which is projected to double every five to seven years — is densest in the northwest part of the state, where the forest is thickest.

But when an entire state lives without bears, it’s tough to transition to a life with bears. As The Mirror reports:

There were 352 reports of damage by bears in Connecticut last year, and at least 16 incidents in the year before where bears entered homes. Road accidents involving bears have also been on the rise, with 24 killed last year compared with fewer than 10 in 2000.

The state must investigate every bear call from the public, and aggressive bears are euthanized. It takes time and money, and euthanized bears can’t be eaten. A hunting season could raise revenue while ensuring killed bears are eaten, not wasted.

What exactly is a “negative” encounter with a bear?

Connecticut is seeing plenty of bear-related property damage. But Bear Aware, a public-education campaign in B.C., receives about 25,000 calls each year about bear-human interactions.

A black bear (female) in Horsefly Peninsula, Quesnel Lake, British Columbia. (Credit: Natures’s Pics online)

Of course, not all calls are about problem bears, according to Frank Ritcey, Provincial Bear Aware Coordinator.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘problem bear,’ because usually we’re the problem, not the bears,” Ritcey tells Latitude News.

If a bear walks through your backyard, sniffs at the house, then moves on, that’s not necessarily a negative interaction (although you may justifiably see that as negative). But if that bear eats your trash, compost or birdseed, that animal can quickly become a problem.

“Bears have figured out that urban areas are a safe place to live,” says Ritsey, “as is evidenced by our 25,000 sightings per year.”

Since 1999, through the combined efforts of public and private institutions, B.C. has taken on an expansive public education campaign aimed at putting a tight lid on trashcans and other things that attract bears.

“Bears are absolutely ruled by their stomachs,” says Mike Badry, Wildlife Conflicts Prevention Coordinator with B.C.’s Ministry of the Environment. “We know bears are always going to be bears. We can’t change their behavior. We have to change our behavior.”

From compost to pepper spray

Badry says he can’t draw a clear statistical link between increased public education and a decrease in negative bear interactions. But, he says, he believes public education is the number one reason they are killing about 400 fewer bears each year.

Between Bear Aware’s outreach and the Ministry of the Environment’s Bear Smart program, the lessons for the public are clear and simple: by removing bear attractants, you’re way less likely to find yourself staring down a hungry bear, a bear that has learned to find food in your neighborhood.

If a bear is not accustomed to finding food near humans, wildlife officials can then create an “uncomfortable experience” for animals that wander into a neighborhood, says Badry. In Connecticut, for example, officials capture bears and spray them with pepper spray. The negative stimulus trains the bears to stay away, which could save their lives in the long run.

“But,” cautions Badry, “it only works if that bear has not become food conditioned.”

No conclusion in sight for Connecticut

Tracks of Ursus americanus, the American black bear, as seen in Brooks Peninsula Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada. (Credit: Padraic Ryan)

For now, The Mirror reports that Connecticut is looking to learn from other eastern states with robust bear populations. Maine and New Jersey have successfully used a hunting season both to control bear populations and draw in revenue through hunting permit sales.

But, as evidenced by Massachusetts, a hunting season holds no guarantees for controlling bear populations. Certain hunting rules — like baiting — make it easier for hunters to harvest bears. Massachusetts outlawed baiting and hunting with dogs in the 1990s. That has probably contributed to the bear population’s continued rise, says Jason Hawley, a wildlife biologist with Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“That really limits your ability to harvest bears,” Hawley tells The Mirror. “There’s certainly plenty of bears in Western Massachusetts … it’s a source population [for Connecticut].”

Connecticut environmental officials are already about five years late in delivering a bear management plan, and the state agency says it needs another two years of study.

In the meantime, as Connecticut’s bear population continues to grow, residents can expect to encounter more black bears. If they’d rather not have a bear in their kitchen, or if they would rather not see the state “destroy” more and more bears, they’d be wise to take a hint from British Columbians and lock up their trash.

Frank Ritcey of Bear Aware offers one more word of caution for Connecticut:

The one thing that I would suggest communities that are new to dealing with bear problems will find is that the Conservation Officers (or game wardens, whatever name they go by) will bear the brunt of public disfavour when bears need to be destroyed. Eventually people will learn it is the actions of the community that are causing the destruction of the bears and not the action of the CO service.

Peruse the sources below for ideas on how to keep bears out of your community.