State environmental police charged a 26-year-old Litchfield County man this week with shooting and killing a black bear following a confrontation with his dog — at a time when the bear population has been steadily growing in Connecticut and spilling into residential neighborhoods.
William O’Connor, 26, of Thomaston, was charged Tuesday after he fired a .22-caliber long rifle in the direction of the mother bear and struck it near his property line, state environmental officials said. O’Connor was “reportedly fearing for his dog’s safety” after his dog had run toward the female black bear and her two cubs.
As the bear was “making huffing noises toward the dog,” O’Connor went back inside his house to retrieve his gun before firing, officials said.
He was charged on a misdemeanor count of illegal taking of a black bear by officers who work for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which has jurisdiction regarding the statewide estimated population of about 800 bears.
The charge comes as state officials are still debating over how to handle Connecticut’s growing bear population and advocates have fought sharply over whether or not a bear hunt should be held in Litchfield County to reduce the herd.
Frustrated homeowners and legislators say hunting is necessary to slow the increasing population, but animal rights groups say hunting the bears is inhumane. Lawmakers have been split over the sometimes emotional issue, and past efforts to allow hunting have failed. Legislators debated the topic on the Senate floor last year, but this year’s session was short-circuited in March by the coronavirus pandemic and no bills were passed concerning the bear population. DEEP has supported a limited hunt in Litchfield County, as well as nonlethal methods to reduce potential issues.
State statistics show the problem has been growing as black bears have entered 42 Connecticut homes this year, breaking records. That represents double the total of 21 in 2018 and up sharply from only seven in 2015. Officials had predicted that the numbers could grow as bears look for food as they fatten up before hibernation in the winter.
The number of reported bear sightings statewide increased by 38% in 2018, and the total of bears struck and killed by vehicles that year — 63 — was the most in state history, officials said.
While some have said that the problem is largely concentrated in the northwest corner of the state, bear sightings have been reported in 153 of 169 cities and towns this year, according to state statistics. Because they have no natural predators, the current statewide population of 800 bears with eventually grow to 3,000 if no actions are taken, officials said.
Lawmakers have debated a bill that calls for allowing hunting only in the Litchfield County, but deputy Senate Republican leader Kevin Witkos says it needs to be extended to Hartford County because of multiple bear sightings in suburbs like Simsbury and Canton.
"Who wouldn’t protect their dog?'' Witkos said Thursday of the arrest. "Your dog is part of your family. I feel bad for the guy, and I blame the legislature for it. I hope and pray it doesn’t take somebody getting mauled or killed for the legislature to take action. We’re looking down the barrel of a gun with these bears.''
While saying that some legislators live in areas where bear sighting are rare, Witkos said he has had bears swimming in his in-ground pool.
"If you lived in the northwest corner and went to a zoo, you would skip the bear exhibit because you see it every day,'' Witkos said. "West Hartford freaks out when they have [a bear sighting]. That doesn’t even make the news here in the northwest part of the state.''
Witkos pledged to introduce a bill in the upcoming 2021 regular session that would impose an infraction after the first warning for feeding bears and seek recommendations from experts on dealing with the growing population.
Bear arrests are relatively rare in Connecticut. An 83-year-old man was arrested in Simsbury in 2008 for shooting a bear as it was headed back into the woods after entering his garage, and he was later granted accelerated rehabilitation in the case and had his criminal record erased.
In this week’s case in Thomaston, which is about 10 miles north of Waterbury, O’Connor received a summons for illegal taking of a black bear, which carries penalties of fines up to $500 and a maximum of 30 days in prison. Those who have a hunting license can have that license temporarily suspended for one or two years and a three-time offender can have the license revoked by the DEEP commissioner. The dog was not hurt in the Thomaston case, and the two young cubs appeared to be able to survive on their own, officials said.
DEEP recently issued a reminder to residents that bears are out more frequently in the fall as that is when they are increasing their food intake to add fat reserves needed to help them survive winter hibernation.
"There are many things residents can do to minimize the likelihood of an encounter with a bear,'' DEEP spokesman Will Healey said. "Bears should never be fed- intentionally or otherwise. Keep garbage in secure, airtight containers inside a garage or storage area. Adding ammonia to cans and bags will reduce odors that attract bears. Periodically clean garbage cans with ammonia to reduce residual odor. Garbage for pickup should be put outside the morning of collection and not the night before.''
Christopher Keating can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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