Officials offer tips for behavior around Black Bears
By Paul Palmer Staff Writer
People in the Farmington Valley are being asked to take some simple steps to help cut down on incidents involving black bears.
From March through November the bears are active across the state, and that sometimes leads to conflict with people and pets. According to numbers from the State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), there were more than 5,500 reported sightings in the state.
Combined, there were nearly 1,000 combined bear sightings in the towns of Avon, Farmington, Canton, and Simsbury at the end of June 2022.
Those numbers ranked the four towns in the top 10 of sightings in the state including the top three positions. In 2021, Avon, Simsbury and Farmington ranked 1-2-3 in Connecticut for bear sightings, while Canton was 9th.
DEEP Wildlife Division Director Jenny Dickson said the number of bears in the state has stayed consistent, but the number of sightings being reported has increased. The state believes the state is home to as many as 1,200 hundred black bears. “One of most important things for people to embrace is all of Connecticut is bear country. They can be in any town in the state, and we all need to do our part to learn to live with them,” Dickson said.
Often the first call made when someone sees a black bear is to their local police. In Simsbury, Police Chief Nick Boulter reports they have seen a steady increase in calls. “We encourage people to call us, especially if a bear is near a school or populated area.” He adds often the bears will simply leave on their own but cited a May situation where a bear entered a home on two occasions.
“If they aren’t deterred by the presence of humans, that alarms us,” said Boulter. Like Simsbury, Canton’s police department gets its fair share of bear calls. On a recent day, the dispatchers received a call about a bear in a car. The animal managed to free itself before police arrived. Captain Andy Schiffer and his officers have some tactics they will employ to move bears away from populated areas.
“We will work with DEEP on scene to try and haze the bear using noise and sirens to convince the bear to move along.” Schiffer adds that one of the areas where bears are most frequently seen is along the Rails to Trails path.
Homeowners are unwittingly attracting the bears to their homes and yards with things like bird feeders and trash cans.
“Some people haven’t recognized the hazard ..that some of their actions bring bears to their houses,” said the Canton captain. One of the main culprits is bird feeders whose food offers bears a quick, easy meal, but often leaves the homeowner cleaning up the mess of a destroyed feeder. Simsbury and Farmington each have town ordinances regarding the feeding of birds and other wildlife, but Avon Canton do not. DEEP has its “Bear Aware” program that aims to educate people on the things they can do to help keep bears at bay. “In many cases they are just passing through but what we don’t want to happen is to have them say “here’s a nice treat” because they will start looking at next year and they get into habit of associating people, houses, yards with food,” Dickson said.
During the summer months and into the fall, bears are bulking up to prepare for winter, it is then that they will eat the most food and look for easy opportunities to add to their caloric intake. A birdfeeder with oil, seeds or even suet provides the bears with a quick meal, but it also begins a cycle of learned behavior that is not good for bear nor human.
“Bears are quite smart and very good at remembering where good food sources are,” said Connor Hogan, director of the McLean Game Refuge. The refuge is 4,400 acres and is dedicated to the protection of native wildlife and the conservation of landscapes.
“Bears love to climb into beech trees and eat the nuts before they fall onto the ground in the fall, Hogan added. “They will repeatedly return to these trees. Same with folks who have bird feeders up. They remember what is good and they remember what is bad.” Bears can also be drawn to chicken coops or other smaller animals being raised in backyards. Dickson said the best way to deter the bears is to put strong fencing around the area.
Black bears were once abundant in the Eastern U.S., but Hogan said they have returned to this region in only about the last 30 years. Our region is a nearly perfect habitat for the black bears to survive and grow, even without humans.
“Connecticut has some of the oldest forests in all New England. Bears are finding better denning habit in Connecticut. Beech trees in Connecticut provide nuts for bears. A lot of trees don’t make it do maturity, but in the more southern part of the state it is drier and beech trees survive. We have a sweet forest type with oak, beech and hickory and climate is more moderate than further north and that leads to success for the bear.” An adult black bear can weigh as much as 550 pounds and run up to 35 miles per hour.
Bears are also territorial as they grow. Cubs will stay with their mothers for up to 18 months to 2 years before venturing out on their own. According to DEEP ‘Females with cubs tend to have restricted home ranges, which average 5 to 7 square miles in Connecticut, while males move about widely in home ranges of 12 to 60 square miles. The size of a home range varies geographically and often depends on the quality of habitat. ‘
The expansion of development deeper into formerly wooded areas is often cited as a reason for the increased sightings and interactions due to a reduced wild space for the bears. But Hogan believes that might not be the case.
“Most houses were built in the past 50 years, so these houses were here before bears returned. The bears’ success has been a surprise to many people.” The increased availability of things like bird feeders, trash cans, garbage, outdoor grills, and food being left out on picnic tables during outings have not only emboldened the bears, but it is also teaching the cubs some bad habits. As they learn their skills from their mothers, they will see and associate things that are easy food sources and this learned behavior becomes part of their everyday approach. According to Hogan, bears tend to go where people are not. While he and Dickson agree that a bear in your backyard is usually just passing through, Hogan believes people have become too comfortable with bears and that is not good for either of them. “People are getting close enough to take photos and bears are starting to not fear people. That comes from people seeing them close to their houses and cars and not doing anything and that emboldens the bears. One of the issues is people see them in their neighborhood, they allow too much for bears. If we don’t want them in neighborhood people need to be more aggressive in terms of hazing. People are more likely to take a picture than do anything to try and haze it.”
Managing the bear/human dynamic is an on-going process for DEEP.
“We see in urban areas when they feel threatened it is normal to go up a tree – a safe place for them. If it can be left on its own and people don’t create a lot of disturbance once it feels safer and calmer, it will go on its way. We get a lot of calls about bears up a tree, the best advice is give it space and leave it alone- it might wait till it’s dark but in 99% of cases it is long gone by the next day,” Dickson said.
DEEP seldom relocates bears but exceptions may be made for bears located in urban settings. The last resort for DEEP is to euthanize a bear. That only happens, according to DEEP, when it sees ‘persistent, serious, negative behavior, such as killing protected livestock or entering buildings.’
On June 13, DEEP did euthanize a bear in Canton, after DEEP Environmental Conservation Police responded to a report of a bear attempting to break into an occupied residence on North Mountain Road and three hours later the animal broke into a home on East Hill Road. Officers believed it was also the same animal that had displayed similar behavior in previous weeks.
“While officers were inspecting the premises, they located a bear at the edge of the homeowner’s property, approximately 30 yards from the house, with food items it had taken from the home,” according to a department press release. “The bear showed no signs of fear or wariness of people–a response not typical of a wild bear.”
Officers capture four bear cubs also at the scene of the East Hill incident and captured all four for location, but sadly one did not revive after being tranquilized, according to DEEP. The others were released to a remote woody area.
There is no open season for black bear hunting in Connecticut. According to the DEEP’s Dickson any change that would be made would have to come from the State Legislature. Hogan said hunting may not be the answer, but rather a long-term management plan. “From a wildlife perspective deer are a greater problem then bears. They are more dangerous to humans than bears, more likely to cause fatal car crash and they carry ticks.”
The sightings reported to DEEP total 4 to 5 times the number of black bears believed living in the state. Dickson said that is often due to where the bears are seen.” In some areas people are used to seeing them and don’t report them. If you are in an area and it is unique, people will tend to report. We’re most consistently getting reports from the Farmington Valley. It's not that bears are new there but for a lot of folks seeing bears is a new thing.” If you do see a bear you should report it to DEEP as it helps personnel keep track of where bears are. If you can safely and from a distance get the color or number of an ear tag the bear may have, that information is particularly useful to DEEP.
If you do see a bear on your property, there are a few things DEEP recommends you do. Either leave the bear alone and wait for it to leave or make loud noises from a safe distance to attempt to scare the bear away. After the bear leaves the property, remove anything that may have attracted it to the area. If you are hiking or camping and come across a bear, DEEP advises making noise and waving your arms to let the bear know you are there. If you surprise a bear at close range, walk away slowly while facing the bear. Do not run. Try to stay calm as you make your retreat. Black bears will sometimes “bluff charge” to within a few feet of you when they feel threatened. If this happens, stand your ground and shout at the bear. Do not climb a tree because black bears are excellent tree climbers. Make sure your dog is on a leash and under control.
Hogan also notes that some states are now requiring campers to bring a “bear box” with them. It is a metal box where campers place food and other scented items that might attract bears and lock them preventing the bears from using their keen sense of smell to detect the items.
There are things you can do around your house to prevent attracting bears. DEEP has a complete list at its website, and they include:
Never feeding a bear.
Removing bird feeders from March to November.
Waiting until morning to bring out your trash cans.
Thoroughly cleaning grills after use or store in a garage or shed.
“There’s a lot that can be done to educate people,” said Hogan. “The discussion has to be about how we are not helping the bears with some of our behaviors.”
To report sightings and learn more about Black Bears visit https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife/Living-with-Black-Bears