The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
The future of bears in Connecticut
Recently in Plainville, a couple heard their dog barking insistently near a raised deck. Soon the woman shouted that she’d spotted a bear. Looking around, the man saw the bear “nestled in a crawl space, stretched out on a bed of leaves and a tarp.” He noted that the visitor lay there, looking comfortable, and “unfazed by everything.” They posted a video on TikTok, attracting over 15 million viewers.
After seeing photos, environmental officials said it was a male black bear, which can weigh at least 500 pounds. During the past two decades, the state’s black bear population has been expanding, currently totaling over a thousand. The environmental agency receives 10 to 20 reports a year of bears sleeping under porches, with no real problems occurring. Eventually we’ll revisit the bears, but first some detail about two other species in the state.
Along the Atlantic coast, killing white tail deer for both meat and buckskin became popular among the recently arrived Europeans, and Native Americans exchanging venison for calico or iron axes also hunted them. Eventually colonial officials responded.
By 1720 most colonies had laws to protect the rapidly declining deer population. A Connecticut statute lamented the brutally wasteful onslaught, noting that common practice involved shooting them “in deep snowes when they are very poor and big with young, the flesh and skins of very little value.”
While the legislation wasn’t effective in the short term, a journalist indicated that over time there’s been a sharp decline in the number of hunters. Nowadays most of them are at least 50 years old, and while younger people have many activities, killing animals seldom appeals. As a result, a substantial increase in deer, which thrive in the revitalized woods, has occurred.
During my childhood in suburban Connecticut, hunting was still popular, but the main quarry was birds. I’d awake Saturday mornings, feeling like I’d barged into a war movie. A shot, then another, another, and so on. The shooting in the nearby woods was nearly incessant.
The journalist previously cited about the decrease in hunters noted that in 1899 Connecticut began stocking ringedneck pheasants from Asia. The effort persists, with the hope of establishing permanent settlements. Each year, however, hunters kill over half of them, and predators dispatch most of the others.
A basic problem is that pheasants are “ground birds that run, then take off into the air in a long diagonal flight.” The farm fields facilitating these crucial launches have generally become tree-covered, limiting pheasants’ numbers and even their survival. Besides pheasants, bobwhite quail and ruffed grouse, both native game birds, have suffered a similar fate. Unlike Connecticut, Midwestern states with ample open spaces have stable pheasant flocks.
Let’s reconsider bears, which many people in the state find a more interesting type of wildlife. Several years ago, University of Connecticut researchers did a two-year study of black bears’ state residency, painstakingly gathering hair samples weekly from 150 locations.
They learned that the bears’ residential preference was modestly populated suburban areas — unlike previously studied members of their species in western states that opt for rural forested locales with few people living nearby. A team member concluded that if Connecticut bears “can find cover and that area is also close to a nice easy food source like a backyard bird feeder, they are very content to stay there.”
Meeting both qualifications, our backyard has proved an appealing target for one of these robust visitors. Recently I was looking outside and saw a large bear, presumably a male, standing on his hind legs ready to attack our bird feeder. A moment later he clobbered it. I ran outside yelling at the creature sprawled on the ground, devouring the winnings strewn around him.
His response was reminiscent of the nonchalant bear described in the opening. Slowly he arose, clearly unimpressed. In fact, while feeling dismayed about the mess, I found it funny when the attacker flashed an almost human look of disgust at my interference. I yelled again, and he sauntered off disgruntledly into the woods.
Sometimes I wonder what’s ahead for these three species. It’s likely that eventually the state will stop stocking pheasants, and so they will disappear. On the other hand, unless there’s a resurgence of hunting, a substantial deer population will persist, seldom arousing more than modest attention.
Bears, fast becoming celebrated in the suburbs, could prove more interesting. In future decades, they will probably keep expanding their numbers while continuing to entangle themselves in various intriguing antics.