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Bear facts

No one knows how many black bears we have in Connecticut. There certainly seems to be an expanding population in the northern and western parts of the state, but no complete picture is available to us based on rigorous science. I spoke with Paul Rego, wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Division of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), who cautions that we lack a comprehensive scientific census of the bear population. He adds, though, that there is good radio telemetry data for reproducing females and cub mortality. This data suggest a bear population that may be increasing by as much as 10 to 20 percent annually. Rego feels it would be reasonable based on the available data to assume a statewide population of at least 300 to 500 black bears, with a growth rate that theoretically could double their numbers in as few as three years. DEEP Bureau of Natural Resources chief Bill Hyatt, on the other hand, is quoted in the Hartford Courant with a bear population estimate between 500 and 1,000 animals. No one knows for sure.In the 1990s, Connecticut’s wildlife authorities felt most of the 75 black bear sightings reported annually in the Nutmeg State represented visiting animals from Massachusetts rather than parts of a resident, reproducing population. Now the DEEP receives over 2,750 reported bear sightings in a single year and many of these animals are here to stay. Rego tells me that while some are nuisance calls, more are reported by people who simply want to share the experience of seeing a bear. There were particularly high numbers of reports in the past 12 months from places like Torrington (194) and Burlington (166), where there are more potential observers, as well as New Hartford (100) and Barkhamsted (111) where human habitation intersects with wildlife corridors leading from large, undeveloped tracts such as the watershed lands of the Metropolitan District Commission. Even though DEEP received only modest numbers of reported sightings last year in the more lightly settled rural parts of northwest Connecticut, that does not mean there aren’t plenty of bears here. Certainly there are more than a mere handful of bears in places with few reports to DEEP like Salisbury (11), Kent (10) and Canaan/Falls Village (8). These low numbers may be explained by there being fewer people in our area to report sightings, or that seeing bears in the Northwest Corner is losing its novelty. There is also more unfragmented habitat here for bears to inhabit without our noticing. Female black bears with cubs have home ranges in our state of between 5 and 7 square miles, while males can range over a much wider territory of 12 to 60 square miles. There is a lot of habitat for them to use unobserved in our neck of the woods. These data points may indicate trends in the bear population in our state but are not hard numbers: certainly not sufficient to develop a science-based wildlife management policy for bears in Connecticut. Nonetheless, there have been a number of reports in news outlets this month that Connecticut may be considering instituting a bear hunting season. Rego has said publicly that while bear hunting is viewed as an option to manage the bear population, there is no plan yet to do so. However, on Jan. 10, the Hartford Courant reported that among the legislative proposals presented by DEEP to Gov. Dannel Malloy and the state Office of Policy and Management is one that would authorize a bear hunting lottery.As other states in our region have discovered, instituting an official bear hunting season involves a considerable investment in time and money, including a comprehensive scientific study of the bear population and full public review. Neither of these steps is required for the legislature to authorize a bear hunting lottery, which moves the question into the realm of politics.Setting aside the question of whether or not bear hunting in Connecticut can be scientifically justified, there are other considerations that make such a legislative proposal controversial. It has been 140 years since bear hunting was permitted in Connecticut, and it is not part of the culture or of rural memory here. Anything that looks like an attempt to avoid public scrutiny will only increase distrust of the state’s intentions.If Connecticut’s Wildlife Division wants the ability to develop its own bear management policy, it will encounter the same concerns as our neighbors in Massachusetts and New Jersey. There is still strong resistance to bear hunting in both states, but there is both science and public process behind their hunting policies. New Jersey justifies its black bear management based on a comprehensive scientific evaluation of genetic structure and distribution, as well as the absence of similarly rigorous data from opponents that might have supported using nonlethal measures to achieve the desired population size and growth rate.The fact remains consumptive use of wildlife is never simply a question of quantifiable science. It always includes competing interests, values and political considerations. The more transparent we are about these factors, the better. Whether or not it can be sustainably done is a matter for science. Whether it is right to do so is an ethical consideration. All of these questions of relative value and ethical values deserve to be part of the public process of vetting hunting policy. Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.

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