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Where Are All These Bears Coming From?

A wildlife biologist separates fact from fiction

 

By Wiley Wood

Black bear sightings are underreported in Norfolk. That’s what Town Clerk Linda Perkins thinks, anyway. She is on a campaign to get Norfolk residents to call the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP)when they see a bear.

“If you look at DEEP’s black bear records for the state, you’d think most of the bears were in West Hartford and practically none were in Norfolk,” says Perkins.

What seems more likely is that Norfolkians are so used to black bears ambling through their yards, riling their dogs and trashing their birdfeeders that they don’t bother calling the DEEP hotline.

“Everyone has a bear story,” says Perkins. One visitor to the town clerk’s office reported a bear attack on her chickens. Another, Robin Lauer, offered a description of DEEP personnel releasing a bear at Norfolk’s Beckley Bog.

This suggests, although DEEP has disavowed the practice, that bears are still being trapped in the suburban south of Connecticut and released in the wooded north.

Confronted with the story, Paul Rego, a DEEP wildlife biologist based in Burlington, racked his brains. There had been a bear trapped in Barkhamsted in recent weeks, but it was released on site. Another was trapped in Colebrook, but it too was released on the site of its capture.

Rego explained that DEEP biologists like to release a bear in the same place where it has been a nuisance, after putting it through a form of hazing with noisemakers and beanbag pellets. DEEP calls the process “aversive conditioning,” and it’s meant to prevent the bear from returning and being a nuisance again.

Rego did remember a bear being released at Beckley Bog 15 or 20 years ago. It was trapped on the north side of Route 44 at the Northwest Connecticut Sportsmen’s Association and moved to a quiet stretch of Beckley Road.

“People might see us driving with a bear trap on the back of a truck and assume that we have just released a bear in their area,” says Rego.

If a bear needs to be moved, as did the one prowling the Brass Mill Center mall in Waterbury last summer, it is usually released within 10 miles. That bear was tranquilized in the parking lot, driven a few miles north and released in Naugatuck State Forest.

This reflects a change in DEEP policy from 20 or 25 years ago when bears often were relocated to less populous parts of the state. The agency now recognizes that no corner of Connecticut is uninhabited or needs additional bears.

“Plenty of people in southern Connecticut would like us to move their bears away,” says Rego. He also says that every town with lots of bear sightings has persistent rumors that bears are being brought there from elsewhere.

In fact, says Rego, bears are wide-ranging and have strong homing instincts. “If the bear caught in Waterbury was released in Norfolk,” says Rego, “there’s a good chance it wouldn’t stay in Norfolk.” And in his experience, a nuisance bear in Hartford may be picked up again the next week five towns away.

“If there’s no property damage, we typically don’t make an onsite response,” says Rego, “but if the bear attacks livestock or damages a building, we’ll try to trap it.”

The traps, called culvert traps, are made of an 8-foot by 3-foot section of corrugated aluminum pipe with a sliding door at the end. They are baited with sweets and donuts, checked every day, and removed after a week if—as often happens—no bear has been caught.

Does putting a trapped bear through aversive conditioning work? Rego qualifies his answer. A bear may stop being a nuisance after hazing, but it’s hard to tell whether the treatment was successful or the nuisance behavior unusual for the bear in the first place. And he says that particular bears are known to continue causing problems after aversive conditioning.

A bear that is truly aggressive toward a human may be killed, says Rego, or one that enters the living area of a home. A bear that causes multiple lesser problems after being caught and hazed may also qualify for lethal control.

“We have a growing bear population,” says Rego. “If nothing is done to address it, the population will continue to grow.” He sees the animal’s range continuing to expand and its interactions with humans increasing.

A bill to authorize bear hunting was proposed in the Connecticut Senate during the January 2017 session. The senators split their vote evenly along party lines and Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman cast the deciding ballot against it.

Rego points out that there are no negative consequences for bears that live and travel in residential areas. In fact, they often discover human-provided food.

“The bears that we have in Connecticut don’t care that they’re walking by houses, that dogs are barking at them, that there are people,” says Rego. “They’re bold. This is a new phenomenon.”

The behavior is much less common in areas where bears are hunted, like in Maine, according to Rego, where bears tend to run when they see humans.

“It’s only in the last few decades that bears have been viewed as novel, comical, entertaining visitors,” says Rego. “Before that, bears were persecuted when they came too close to humans.”

Rego believes that a managed bear hunt in Connecticut could stabilize the bear population—perhaps at a lower level, which would reduce the animal’s range—and lessen its inclination to mix with humans.

When Robin Lauer was contacted about the bear released at Beckley Bog, he was quick to say that the incident happened at least five years ago. And what he’d actually seen was a DEEP truck heading up Beckley Road with a culvert trap on a trailer.

Whatever the reason for the increased bear presence in Norfolk this year—mild winters and large surviving litters have been suggested, along with an abundance of food sources and a growing habituation to humans—the explosion in their numbers is very real.

Perkins, at Town Hall, is besieged with bear stories, and Lauer, on the morning he was interviewed, had just seen a large, mud-covered bear walk up to Grantville Road from Smith Pond. He worries about the safety of his grandchildren when they come to visit.

DEEP encourages Connecticut residents to report bear sightings at 860-424-3011 or online at www.ct.gov/deep/blackbear.

Photo, top, of a bear on Shepard Road, by Michael Souveroff.

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