Aug. 6—For those who leave their trash outside for long periods and put out bird feeders in the summer, it may be a good time to bring them in for the time being.
That's because the bear population in the state is only going up, and they may go looking for food in backyards, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Wildlife Division Director Jenny Dickson said this week.
"The population is absolutely growing throughout the state," Dickson said. She estimates that there are now approximately 1,200 of the animals in Connecticut, which happens to be an excellent home for bears, it turns out.
"We've got a good habitat for bears, they're getting a lot of really good natural food, and we've just got lots and lots of good bear habitat in Connecticut. So we've got all the right things for them to be successful and thrive," Dickson said, adding that this has helped bears reproduce at a greater rate, and that more cubs survive to adulthood.
At this point, it's not just heavily wooded areas that may be good bear habitat; there's a good chance that the increased number of bears have made their way into nearly every town in the state, Dickson said.
"We are seeing them in some very urban places — we've had bears in Hartford this year, we've had bears very frequently in Waterbury — pretty much any place is bear country at this point in time," Dickson said, adding, "bears are starting to explore many other places in the state."
Bears can make their way through these heavily populated areas by traveling through greenways and open space, parks, cemeteries, or golf courses, which the animals consider "movement corridors," Dickson said. She added that because bears are expanding to populated areas, this could increase the chance that bears look for food in areas where people are. And that can lead to dangerous encounters.
Bears in backyards
The map graphic shows the number of bear sightings in 2022 for each town covered by the Journal Inquirer. Sightings could be of the same bear, officials from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection note, and not necessarily multiple bears. Anyone who sees a bear should report it to their local animal control officer, or report the sighting to DEEP online at: https://survey123.arcgis.com/share/187a8a495d4e4ca497261d163d6fffc9?
About two years ago, Coventry resident Anthony Callegari said he was sitting at home with his family, when his dog started to bark aggressively at something outside.
"Sure enough, I look out the window and (the bear) is just walking down the side of my yard, across the street, and yeah, we were pretty surprised. For once our dog was barking at something to protect us from," Callegari said. He added that the first thing he felt when seeing the bear was shock.
"You really don't see too many sightings out this way, usually it's on the other side of the river ... seeing it out this way, we were definitely very surprised," Callegari said. He added that the neighborhood he lives in is a newer development that still has some wooded areas that have not been cleared.
He said he's not too worried that another bear could show up in his neighborhood, but he still dwells on the thought occasionally.
"The only thing that worries me is there's a lot of kids in the neighborhood who are riding their bikes or going for walks so that's always in the back or your mind," Callegari said. "It's an extra thing to have your eyes ready for and be a little prepared for." As such, he wants to make sure his kids are educated on what to do if they see a bear.
The bear that Callegari saw did not attempt to find food in his yard by knocking over trashcans or bird feeders, he said.
Stafford resident Melissa Chaplin Jackopsic wasn't as lucky, though, as a hungry bear came looking for food in her bird feeder on Monday, she said.
"Usually once or twice a year for maybe five or six years we get a bear coming through our yard ... it just really goes for the bird seed and usually once it comes we put the bird seed away," Jackopsic said, adding that it does not concern her too much that she shares her hundred-acre property with a bear.
"This is its territory," she said, adding that she would only be really concerned if the bear went after her chickens. So far though, that has not happened.
"It really wasn't causing a nuisance," Jackopsic added, saying that she understands though why people in more urban areas might be scared if they encounter a bear.
On the trail
As bear populations rise and they expand into more areas, encounters may also happen in town parks and hiking trails, Dickson said. One such sighting happened to Glastonbury resident Elizabeth Abbe recently when she was walking in the town's J.B. Williams Park with her dog.
"I was on the trail and I looked over and to my left, there was the mother. And then there were the three cubs obnoxiously climbing up trees," Abbe said, adding that the cubs were awfully rambunctious. "I wasn't fearful at all ... I was kind of surprised and kind of astonished by the size of her, but she obviously wanted nothing to do with me."
Abbe said she has also seen a bear walking around the intersection of Routes 83 and 94 in Glastonbury, and encountered one about a month ago while again walking her dog in the eastern part of the town. Every time though, she said the bears have kept to themselves.
"They haven't been in any way aggressive to me," Abbe said, adding, "it was a little thrilling to see a bear in the wild, and you feel like that's kind of a privilege."
Dickson said that while it is very much a possibility for hikers and those using town parks to see a bear, people should not be too worried about it. The most important thing is that people should know what to do if they do see a bear, she added.
"Our black bears are typically not very aggressive, they're usually going to go the other way as soon as they know you're there. So for our bears, a lot of it really is just making sure that they're aware of your presence. Make a lot of noise, wave your arms, just make sure that the bear knows that you're there," Dickson said, adding that it is likely that the bear will then move on.
She also advises those walking their dogs to keep their pets on a leash, and said one of the worst responses to seeing a bear is running away from it.
"Sometimes when we turn and run, it's like any other animal, they think it's time to play. It triggers that chase response, they might chase you, so that's one of the things we want to try and avoid," Dickson said.
Because seeing bears may be a more common occurrence now, officials say that the most important thing people can do is learn how to properly live around them.
"Bears are going to be everywhere, wildlife is everywhere, it's really that the public needs to take time to become educated," said Manchester Animal Control officials, adding that people should follow the guidelines that DEEP puts out to the public.
Dickson said that these guidelines include not putting out trash until collection day, and taking down bird feeders in the summer months when bears are active. Dickson also said keeping your patio grill clean and not leaving pet food outside can also make a difference in keeping the bears away from homes.
"That's all really important because once a bear gets that free meal, whether it's from a garbage can or a bird feeder, it starts to make that positive association that people in their houses and in their yards are where you go to look for food," Dickson said.
She added that when bears make this association and lose their fear of people, "that's when very bad things can happen," and the bears can become more aggressive.
Such an example of a bear losing this fear happened in May when a female black bear was fatally shot outside of a Newtown home by an off-duty police officer.
DEEP officials had said that this bear, known locally as Bobbi, had lost its fear of people and learned to associate humans with food after more than 175 documented interactions.
The fatal shooting orphaned two cubs, which were captured and sent to a wildlife rehabilitation facility in New Hampshire. The police officer that shot Bobbi will not face charges, DEEP announced last month.
Abbe feels that this incident could have been avoided.
"That's not right ... I think that incident got a lot of press and it got people thinking, wow, did they really have to shoot that bear? Or was there another way," Abbe said.
"I think for the people I know and my neighbors here in Glastonbury, I think they feel there's another way we can coexist," she added.
Dickson said the key to living with the bears is to learn the proper preventative habits, like keeping trash and bird feeders inside when they are active and not hibernating for the winter.
"The most important thing we can do is all learn how to be bear-aware and learn how to live with the bears better," she said.
"We really want to do whatever we can to learn to live with them better and prevent them from learning those bad habits because it's going to be bad for them, and it's going to be bad for us," Dickson added.
Ben covers Vernon and Stafford for the Journal Inquirer.