August 28, 2009
CONNECTICUT'S BLACK BEAR POPULATION
By: Paul Frisman, Principal Analyst
You asked several questions about bears. Specifically, you wanted to know the size of Connecticut's black bear population, a summary of state laws regarding them, and a summary of regulatory provisions in neighboring states.
The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) estimates there are between 300 and 500 black bears in the state, and that the bear population is growing annually by between 10% and 20%. 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 that injure property on agricultural lands.
DEP reports that there were 2,759 bear sightings and 375 reports of bear damage in 2007-08. Two-thirds of the reports of damage involved raids on birdfeeders or trash. Although black bears are generally not aggressive towards humans, DEP has taken steps to advise people how to respond to the increasing number of encounters with these animals.
DEP works with local authorities to monitor bear activity and has trapped, tranquilized, and removed bears in certain situations, such as when they are in a populated area from which they cannot leave safely on their own. DEP has euthanized four problem bears in the past two years.
Massachusetts and New York, which have larger bear populations than Connecticut, allow hunting. New York has developed a bear management manual and a “framework” for dealing with bears. New Jersey cancelled its bear hunting season in 2006 and has not allowed hunting since. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Fish and Wildlife Division and local law enforcement respond to bear complaints based on three specific categories of bear behavior.
BLACK BEAR POPULATION IN CONNECTICUT
Connecticut's bear population is comprised of black bears, the smallest American bears. Full-grown males weigh between 150 to 400 pounds and females between 110 to 200 pounds. Adults are five to six feet long. Black bears are seldom aggressive towards humans.
Once common in Connecticut, black bears were extirpated by the mid-19th century. Bears began returning, however, as farms were abandoned and woodlands began expanding. Although there were sporadic bear sightings throughout the 20th century, DEP believes Connecticut did not have a resident bear population until the 1980s.
The bears' solitary nature and general avoidance of humans makes it difficult to precisely determine their numbers. DEP estimated in 2007 that there were about 300 bears in the state, and the department's Paul Rego states that there could now be as many as 500, with the population growing by between 10% and 20% annually. (Black bears generally breed every other year, with litters of two or three cubs being most common.)
DEP reports 2,759 bear sightings in 133 towns in 2007-08. This is more than double the number of sightings (1,258) that took place five years ago, and 34 times the number of sightings (81) that occurred 10 years ago. (The number of sightings is greater than the estimated number of bears because each bear may be spotted several times as it travels in search of food. The DEP figures also include reports of bears killed in motor vehicle collisions.)
LAWS AFFECTING BEARS AND BEAR HUNTING
It is illegal to hunt or trap bears in Connecticut (Conn. Agency Regs. § 26-66-3(f)). Violators are subject to a fine of at least $500, imprisonment for up to 90 days, or both. Second-time offenders face a fine of at least $750, imprisonment for up to 120 days, or both; and third-time and subsequent offenders face a fine of at least $1,000, imprisonment for up to 180 days, or both. In addition, the law requires the DEP commissioner, upon a conviction for illegal bear hunting, to suspend (1) a first-time violator's hunting license for at least one year, and (2) a second-time offender's hunting license for at least two years. She must revoke the hunting license of a third-time or subsequent offender (CGS § 26-80a).
However, a person may kill a bear in self-defense if he or she reasonably believes it is going to kill or seriously injure anyone. DEP states it would investigate such instances to determine if the killing is justified. A farmer or farm worker may legally pursue, trap, and kill a bear that injures any property on land used for agriculture (CGS § 26-72).
By law, the DEP commissioner may “take” (shoot, kill, capture, or trap) an animal for public health and safety purposes, except on Sundays, when hunting is prohibited. However, where there is an imminent threat to public health or public safety, the commissioner may take an animal at any time. The commissioner also may destroy and dispose of any undesirable wildlife detrimental to crops or livestock or that causes severe property damage. The commissioner must comply with professional wildlife management principles when taking, destroying or disposing of an animal (CGS § 26-3).
The growing number of bears and their attraction to such suburban food sources as trash and birdfeeders has led to an increase in human-bear encounters. DEP statistics (attached) show that the number of reports of damage caused by bears in recent years has fluctuated annually, from a low of 73 in 1999-2000 to a high of 545 in 2003-04. There were 375 such reports in 2007-08, the most recent year for which results are available. More than two-thirds of the damage reported in 2007-08 involves birdfeeders (139 incidents) and trash (119). There also were 34 reports of injury to livestock or pets.
Recognizing that the number of bear-human encounters will inevitably increase, DEP has taken steps to educate people about how best to prevent conflicts with bears, such as by removing potential food sources and not feeding the animals. DEP's efforts include media interviews and publication of several websites on dealing with bears. These websites can be found at http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?a=2723&q=325930&depNav_GID=1655 and
http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?a=2723&q=325968&depNav_GID=1655. DEP also provides a web page where people can report bear sightings at http://www.depdata.ct.gov/wildlife/sighting/bearrpt.htm. OLR Report 2007-R-0419 (attached) provides more information about DEP efforts.
Because black bears are rarely aggressive toward humans, the mere presence of a bear does not mean DEP will remove it. DEP works with local public safety officials to monitor bear activity in developed areas.
Although DEP seldom relocates bears, it will remove a bear from an urban location when (1) there is little likelihood that it can leave safely on its own and (2) the bear is in a position where it can be safely immobilized. DEP tranquilizing teams, consisting of Environmental Conservation Police Officers and wildlife biologists, are trained and equipped to immobilize wildlife.
When necessary, DEP traps, tranquilizes, and removes a bear when responding to specific bear-human conflicts. The department may use “aversive conditioning,” which uses negative reinforcement, such as subjecting the bear to loud noises or pepper spray, to discourage a bear from continuing to engage in dangerous behavior.
There have been cases in which DEP has had to kill bears that showed persistent, serious, dangerous behavior, such as killing livestock or entering buildings. According to Rego, the department has euthanized four bears that exhibited aggressive behavior in the past two years.
One example of an instance when DEP euthanized a bear occurred in April 2002. It involved a 225-pound female bear that had broken through a screened window in a Goshen home. This animal had caused repeated problems for more than three years and was responsible for 50 complaints. DEP officials noted at the time that the department had tried and failed to alter this bear's behavior through non-lethal means.
DEP Bear Management Plan
In 2007, DEP stated that it was developing a bear management plan that would address such issues as educating residents about bears; banning people from feeding them; population control, including the creation of bear hunting seasons; relocating problem bears; and resolving human-bear conflicts. According to Rego, the plan is still in draft form.
BLACK BEARS IN NEARBY STATES
According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the state's bear population grew from about 100 to about 3,000 between the early 1970s and 2005, with the population growing at a moderate rate. Massachusetts has regulated black bears as a game animal since 1952.
There is a bag limit of one bear per calendar year. Massachusetts hunters must buy a $5 bear hunting permit in addition to their basic hunting or sporting license. The bear season is split in two: 17 days in September (timed to coincide with agricultural damage) and 18 days in November. The number of bear hunters varies annually between 2,500 and 3,000. As currently regulated, hunting takes about 5% to 7% of the estimated population. More information on Massachusetts bear hunting is available at http://www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/recreation/hunting/bear/bear_hunting_home.htm and http://www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/regulations/plain_language/hunting_bear.htm.
In 2003, New Jersey allowed its first bear hunt in 30 years. Hunters killed 328 animals. However, officials disagreed over the size of the resident bear population, and the 2004 hunt was canceled. The hunt was reinstated in 2005, but again cancelled for 2006. No bear hunt has occurred since.
Bear Rating System
The NJDEP's Division of Fish and Wildlife employs a Black Bear Rating and Response Criteria to define three categories of black bear behavior and the appropriate NJDEP response.
Category 1 animals are those bears that (1) pose an immediate threat to human safety, or (2) are causing agricultural damage or property damage of more than $500. These bears are euthanized.
Category 2 animals are those that pose a nuisance but are not a threat to life or property. These bears are aversively conditioned to discourage them from persisting in the nuisance behavior.
Category 3 bears are those that exhibit normal behavior, and are not a threat to human safety or property. NJDEP staff offers technical assistance on “bear-proofing” to people reporting a Category 3 animal. No attempt is made to capture a bear in this category unless it is (1) in a confined area or (2) treed in an urban area, and the animal's life or the public's safety is in danger.
Black bears have been expanding their range in New York over the past 20 years. There are now an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 black bears in the state, with the largest population in the Adirondack region. Bear hunting is legal, with a limit of one bear each year.
New York reports that the annual legal bear harvest has varied from 525 to 1,864 during the past 20 years. In addition, between 14 and 61 bears are known to have died annually during that time from collisions with motor vehicles. More information on bear hunting in New York can be found on-line at http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/7857.html.
In 1999, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) established a project team to develop a summary of best practices for handling bear issues that involve or could involve members of the public. The manual, first published in 2000, contains procedures and other recommendations for DEC staff to address over 50 situations in which humans might become involved with bears or their impacts. An updated 2006 version incorporates new response techniques and a classification system for the severity of bear behaviors.
In addition, DEC has developed a “framework” for making decisions about black bear management. More information on this framework is available at http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/BBPlanningFramework.pdf and more information on black bears in New York can be found at http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/BBNaturalhistory.pdf.