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    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    Conflicts between humans and bears increase in Conn. as population spreads, DEEP says

    Connecticut's thriving population of black bears got into more conflicts than ever with residents last year, raiding garbage, clawing down bird feeders, entering homes, killing livestockand even attacking people, according to the recently released State of the Bears report.

    The animals, including sows bearing young, continue to be concentrated in the state's western half, especially the Northwest Hills and Farmington Valley, according to the report from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

    Trying to reduce run-ins between people and bears, DEEP last year launched its Be Bear Aware campaign, focused on "the critical need for residents to do their part in keeping communities and bears safe." The campaign stresses blocking bears' access to human food, including garbage, bird seed, backyard poultry, and other livestock.

    This year, DEEP spokesperson Paul Copleman said Friday, the agency "will be focused on implementing the bear-related legislation that passed last year." The law expands circumstances in which a bear can be killed to protect life and property, allowing individuals to request permits to kill bears when the animals are damaging crops, livestock or beehives and non-lethal responses are unreasonable or ineffective.

    The law also bans the intentional feeding of potentially dangerous animals (including bears) and establishes the right to use deadly force to defend oneself, other people and pets if attacked, in certain circumstances.

    Wildlife advocates last year, however, helped to defeat a long campaign by hunters and farmers in the state to legalize bear hunting, particularly in the northwest corner. Hunting opponents have argued that DEEP already has the authority to kill bears that pose a danger to humans, and that more funding is needed for electric fencing and other non-lethal controls, along with restitution to farmers who suffer damage.

    "As always," Copleman said, "we are willing to work with the legislature as requested on wildlife proposals they consider."

    Highlights from the 2023 State of the Bears report include:

    — Bears have been spotted in every town in the state in recent years. Last year, bears were sighted in 165 of 169 municipalities, compared with reports from 158 communities the year before.

    — The breeding population continues a long-term expansion into more towns. Over the last three years, sows with offspring (an average of 2.6 cubs per momma bear) have been reported in 117 municipalities. First-year survival of cubs was 81 percent. Still, while young male bears wander extensively, female-led bear families remain concentrated in the state's western half.

    "The Connecticut River serves as a barrier of sorts," Copleman said. "They can cross, but seldom do since there is still unoccupied, suitable habitat west of the river which is why we are seeing distribution increase in New Haven and Fairfield counties. As the suitable habitat fills up, more bears will put in the effort to cross the river. Clearly some do, and we are also seeing bears from Massachusetts move south into eastern Connecticut."

    — DEEP's long-term research shows that Connecticut's bear population has a high reproduction rate compared to some other areas of the animals' range, due in part to the abundance of suitable habitat and excessive human-related food in Connecticut. The state's population has a high potential for growth, researchers reported.

    — Human-bear conflicts have been steadily increasing, including raids on apiaries and other agricultural losses, damage to vehicles and structures and attacks on pets. Last year, bears attacked two people, but no life-threatening injuries were reported. While more conflict reports came from western Connecticut, residents reported issues with bears across the state.

    — More than 85 percent of livestock conflicts in recent years involved backyard chickens, but the vast majority of overall conflicts involved garbage and bird feeders.

    — Bear home entries reached a record in 2022, with 67 incidents reported. Last year, 35 entries were reported. Plentiful rainfall in 2023 led to abundant natural food throughout the year, which could help explain why fewer bears entered homes seeking easy meals, DEEP reported.

    — Still, scaled for each state's estimated bear population size, Connecticut's home entries far exceed reports from Massachusetts and New York, which have far larger bear populations than Connecticut's estimated 1,200. The two neighboring states see less than one home entry per 100 bears each year, while over the last six years, Connecticut has averaged 3.1 home entries per 100 bears each year.

    Visit DEEP's Living with Black Bears site for more information on reducing conflicts.

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