by Nicole Rivard
While it may be a new experience for some Connecticut residents to see black bears in their neighborhoods, UCONN professor and ecologist Tracy Rittenhouse thinks it’s exciting. After all, they were extirpated from the state in the early 1900s because of hunting.
“Not that many wildlife species on this planet are increasing,” Rittenhouse told the sold out crowd gathered at the Audubon Center in Glastonbury to hear about her four-year research project studying Connecticut’s black bear population. “If you look at the list of the species of wildlife in the state who are increasing, and the list of who are decreasing, there’s a lot of species declining.”
In fact, there are six mammals, 18 birds, four reptiles, two amphibians and five fish already endangered in Connecticut, not to mention the species who are threatened, as well as all the insects, other invertebrates and plants that are threatened and endangered.
Rittenhouse finds it uplifting there’s an animal who is actually able to survive in a state with 3.6 million people.
So do I.
That’s why it’s exasperating that some Connecticut legislators and the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) have been pushing for a bear hunt. For the last two years, Friends of Animals has led the charge to defeat a bill that would allow one, and we are poised to do the same if another gets introduced in 2019.
But what Rittenhouse’s research, which was published in 2016, reveals is that CT’s bear population isn’t increasing so much that suddenly they are running amok among Connecticut residents. Instead, she discovered that CT bears and residents like to live in the same places, which is in closer proximity to humans than expected. Hence some increased sightings.
Rittenhouse explained that the highest concentration of bears in Connecticut are in “exurban” areas—higher than in rural forests where there are no human houses and higher than in well-developed suburbs. Exurban areas have between 6-49 houses per kilometer squared.
It is thought that exurban development provides bears with the perfect balance of natural forest cover and extra food sources, but not too many people.
All of this explains why when Rittenhouse completed her research in 2014, she discovered only about 400 adult bears in the state, yet DEEP received more than 4,600 reports of black bear sightings in the state that year. She pointed out that she had collected 734 different hair samples in the northwestern part of the state where she set up “hair corrals,” yet only 235 of those were unique bears.
This underscores what FoA has been saying all along—every bear sighting is not necessarily a different bear, something DEEP conveniently neglects to mention in the media. By the way, even DEEP says the state has the capacity for 3,000 bears.
Interestingly, Rittenhouse’s research is surprising. Most existing research about American black bears indicates they prefer rural areas, and it’s the amount of forest in those regions that determines the bear population density. But that information is generated largely in western states like Colorado and Wyoming.
This new information shows that Connecticut bears – and likely bears throughout the more heavily populated northeast – are different. They can, and do, adjust to living in a habitat developed by and shared with humans.
Good for them. So that means humans need to adjust to living in neighborhoods shared with bears.
Bears are omnivores and opportunistic feeders. They will adapt their eating habits and take advantage of the food humans provide access too. And a hunt won’t change that. Bears who aren’t slaughtered won’t learn from the dead bears not to be opportunistic feeders.
So what’s a good neighbor to do? The Bear Smart Society recommends disposing of garbage and recycling in a bear-proof manner. This one is HUGE. It’s the number one way to prevent human-bear conflict at your home. Practices like only feeding birds in the winter or installing electric fencing around attractants can not only reduce conflicts now, but may reduce the proliferation of unwanted behaviors as the bear population grows. Keeping accessible doors and windows closed and locked will also help. (Bears have been known to break screen windows, climb up second or third story decks and even open sliding doors.) Also, burn food residue off BBQ’s after each use and ensure the grease tray/can is empty and clean. Keep compost clean and odor free. And keep your vehicle clean and odor free. Food in vehicles is a target for bears. They will smash windows to get food and other smelly things like a deodorant stick or an empty coffee cup.
Lastly, when walking your dog, keep them leashed and give grazing bears space to graze.
I wish all Connecticut residents could hear Rittenhouse’s presentation, as it provided a better understanding of bears and why they are choosing Connecticut to start a family as well as what people need to do to stay safe, minimize property damage and keep bears alive. It’s much more useful than DEEP’s annual black bear sighting statistics, which are meaningless and only stoke fear.
Maybe, just maybe, residents will even start enjoying their new neighbors, who are actually shy creatures who aren’t looking for conflict.
And if they can’t, perhaps it’s time they move to the city. Not the bears, the humans.
Nicole Rivard is editor of Friends of Animal’s quarterly magazine Action Line. She brings 18 years of journalism experience to the front lines, protesting and documenting atrocities against animals