Re­search shows black bears like liv­ing near hu­mans

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Newsbites - ROBERT MILLER

There are about 500 Dunkin’ Donuts stores in Con­necti­cut — ba­si­cally about three each for the 169 towns in the state.

Some towns may be with­out even one. Cities seem to have one of ev­ery corner, the bet­ter to serve the choco­lateglazed- and- vanilla- bean Coolata- lov­ing pub­lic.

“Dunkin Donuts knows hu­man be­hav­iors,” said Tracy Rit­ten­house, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of nat­u­ral re­sources and the en­vi­ron­ment at the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut.

Rit­ten­house was speak­ing to a packed house at the an­nual Hask­ins Lec­ture, pre­sented by the Aspetuck Land Trust at the Uni­tar­ian Church in West­port ear­lier this month.

She was talk­ing about black bears, not crullers and cof­fee.

But her re­search shows this: in­ad­ver­tently, we’ve set up feed­ing sta­tions, like Dunkin’ Donut shops, for bears in our spa­ciously zoned, well- wooded towns. In­stead of Munchkins, they’re chow­ing down on bird seed and garbage.

But the state black bears are do­ing a Goldilocks rou­tine. Too crowded, and they’ll stay away — they gen­er­ally avoid peo­ple. But too empty and they’ll look for more promis­ing digs.

What’s just right is the ex­urbs — posh sub­ur­ban towns that have lots of open space be­tween houses. The homes give them ac­cess to ex­tra food. The woods give them places to den in win­ter, nuts to eat in fall, and open space to beat a quick re­treat when hu­mans ap­proach.

And they have no preda­tors in the state. Their numbers are in­creas­ing might­ily.

“We might have 700 bears in the state, but I think that’s a con­ser­va­tive num­ber,” said Ja­son Haw­ley, a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist with the state Depart­ment of En­ergy and En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion. “It could be high as 1,000.”

And when peo­ple see them, they call their first se­lect­man.

“Oh yes,’’ said New Fair­field First Se­lect­man Pat Del Monoco. “It’s pretty fre­quent. It’s been pretty con­stant from the spring un­til the last cou­ple of weeks.”

Bridge­wa­ter First Se­lect­man Cur­tis Read said his town, bor­dered on the south by both Lake Lilli­nonah and the Shep­aug River, may be a sort of bear trap. They travel south, he said, un­til they hit wa­ter. Then, they de­cide to stay.

“We’ve got bears with tags, bears with ba­bies,” Read said. “We’ve got all types. They’re be­com­ing a nui­sance.”

The DEEP’s Haw­ley said there were about 30 bear break- ins at houses this year — mostly in bear- heavy Farm­ing­ton River Val­ley towns.

His guess is that only a few bears were re­spon­si­ble for all these kitchen cup- board raids.

“One time we had 15 break- ins in the town of Nor­folk,” Haw­ley said. “Only one or two bears were do­ing it.”

But the fear is that be­cause black bears live close to peo­ple, and have vo­ra­cious ap­petites, they’ll find hu­man food stored in­side houses too tempt­ing to re­sist.

“I think we’re go­ing to see it more and more,” Haw­ley said.

Although black bears are na­tive to Con­necti­cut, de­for­esta­tion in the 19th cen­tury and un­re­stricted hunt­ing made them dis­ap­pear for a cen­tury.

But once the state grew back to ma­ture, nut- pro­duc­ing forests, black bears had a place to live. Slowly, an ex­ist­ing bear pop­u­la­tion in Mas­sachusetts be­gan mov­ing back into Con­necti­cut in the 1980s.

Rit­ten­house and grad stu­dent Michael Evans spent four years, from 2010 to 2014, study­ing the state’s black bear pop­u­la­tion. They placed food baits in­side barbed wire en­clo­sures, then did a DNA anal­y­sis of the hair snagged on the wire.

She ex­pected to find that, as in other states, black bears would pre­fer to live in the least- pop­u­lated towns in the study ar­eas.

In­stead she found that, in Con­necti­cut, bears can tol­er­ate peo­ple and choose to live in some prox­im­ity to them.

“This the first study that pro­vided solid ev­i­dence of that,” she said. “I was shocked.”

Rit­ten­house is now work­ing with the DEEP to study bob­cat be­hav­ior. Pre­lim­i­nary ev­i­dence shows that they are choos­ing to co­ex­ist with hu­mans as well.

There are also coy­otes, which af­ter ar­riv­ing here from the West in the 1950s are now an es­tab­lished part of the state’s ecosys­tems. They han­dle be­ing near peo­ple with aplomb.

And, of course, there are white- tailed deer pac­ing through the sub­ur­ban shrub­bery.

Rit­ten­house said she con­sid­ers her­self lucky to be a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist in a small, un- wild place and study the in­ter­play of peo­ple and an­i­mals. If big things like black bears are do­ing well, small things — most bats, many birds and sala­man­ders — are in trou­ble.

“We have 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing on 5,500 square miles of land,’’ she said. “It’s a won­der­ful place to work.’’

Con­trib­uted photo / Tina Hei­drich

A black bear eats bird seed from a feeder out­side a home in Brook­field in Au­gust.

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