Black bear rising: State sees population, attacks soar

The black bear that attacked the Bjornberg family's sheep on their Lyme property Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (Photo by Jason Bjornberg, courtesy of Emily Gerber-Bjornberg)
The black bear that attacked the Bjornberg family's sheep on their Lyme property Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (Photo by Jason Bjornberg, courtesy of Emily Gerber-Bjornberg)

Lyme — At first, Jason Bjornberg couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing in his yard. To him, it looked like a black mass was standing over his pet sheep Cream.

“I thought maybe it was our other, black sheep (Cookies), but that didn’t make any sense ... But then I realized it was a black bear on top of her — a beautiful, very healthy black bear — and it was tearing into her, meat was hanging from her neck, and she was still alive,” Bjornberg said, relaying the Sept. 28 incident while walking over his 31-acre property in Lyme on a recent afternoon.

With his initial confusion quickly turning to adrenaline, Bjornberg said he started to yell at the bear to scare it away. When it ran back into the woods, Bjornberg, too, ran into his house to tell his two children to stay inside, while also grabbing a .357 handgun to put Cream out of her misery.

But once back at the sheep’s side, to Bjornberg’s horror, he noticed the bear was tracing back “to claim its meat.”

“It was coming back slow but fast enough where I wasn’t going to wait,” he said. “I needed to move out of the way but I also needed to kill Cream.”

Positioning himself at a safe distance from the bear but close enough to aim at Cream, Bjornberg was able to simultaneously kill Cream and scare the bear away with one shot, catching last-minute photos of the bear running off before returning to the woods.

It hasn’t returned since, he said.

The incident stands as another reminder that Connecticut’s ever-growing bear population is expanding into new areas around the state, including New London County, with three recent bear sightings reported in Waterford and five in Lyme.

While Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesman Chris Collibee couldn’t confirm that Bjornberg’s bear attack was the first reported incident of its kind in New London County, he said Tuesday that it was an unusual occurrence for the region.

“But it’s also not a completely abnormal event,” he had said earlier, on Friday. “They are certainly beginning to fatten up to hibernate for the season. So they are trying to consume calories ... They will be looking for further sources to feed on. And if there is unprotected livestock, unfortunately, they will try to pursue those, as well.”

In 2017 alone, there were 61 reported bear attacks against livestock and pets throughout the state — a 56.4 percent increase over reported attacks in 2016.

Considering that Connecticut’s bear population hovers around 800 and is increasing at a rate of 10 to 15 percent per year, similar attacks may continue to happen.

“The really big thing is to eliminate food sources and bring in livestock at night,” Collibee said.

“That’s making sure the trash is brought in at night. Securing trashcans. Making sure that livestock feed, birdfeed and leftover food are not left out, because the smell will travel and it will attract bears,” he said.

Another good idea? Putting up proper electric fencing to protect livestock.

For sheep farmer Suzanne Sankow of Beaver Brook Farm in Lyme, lining her 100-plus acres of farmland with electric fencing has been a very necessary precaution to protect her 500-plus sheep from threats. Up until this point, however, predators mostly included coyotes and fisher cats, with the occasional owl attack. Never bears, she said.

But with news of Bjornberg’s bear attack, she is on high alert.

“I was very surprised to hear about that,” Sankow said. “I’ve never heard anything like that happening in this area, and I’ve been here for 50 years.”

“Putting up a proper electric fence is the best way to protect livestock,” she added. “And bringing them in to home base every night is also important. I’m already doing that. But other sheep owners need to know that it’s necessary to protect their livestock.”

In the aftermath of the attack, Bjornberg and his wife, Emily, made sure to warn nearby neighbors, as well as local sheep farmers, of the incident. Several Lyme-based sheep farmers could not be reached to comment by deadline.

“I think this is becoming more normal because of the growing bear population,” Bjornberg said. “It’s important to know how to deal with a bear if this situation does arrive, and we just want people to be aware that there are bears around,” he said.

In any case, people should call police if a bear is actively creating a safety hazard by entering a home or walking in a densely populated neighborhood, Collibee said. If the bear isn’t causing harm, people are asked to report the sighting to DEEP.

It is illegal to hunt or trap bears in Connecticut. However, people may kill bears in self-defense and farmers, or farm workers, may trap and kill bears, but only in the case that livestock is injured on agricultural lands.

Report bear sightings to the Wildlife Division by calling (860) 424-3011 or visiting bit.ly/bearreport.

m.biekert@theday.com 

The black bear that attacked the Bjornberg family's sheep on their Lyme property Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (Photo by Jason Bjornberg, courtesy of Emily Gerber-Bjornberg)
The black bear that attacked the Bjornberg family's sheep on their Lyme property Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (Photo by Jason Bjornberg, courtesy of Emily Gerber-Bjornberg)

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