In a human-bear encounter in the Connecticut woods, guess who’s going to win?
OK, this is a trick question. There doesn’t need to be one winner. Black bears and people can — and should — coexist.
So it is maddening that a chance encounter of a hiker and a black bear in a Newtown state park two weeks ago is being used by politicians to scare people and to justify the open hunting and killing of bears in our state. This is wrong.
Even the hiker, a 38-year-old Newtown resident, said in a statement that he does not wish “to participate in any narrative that promotes increased engagement or violence towards the animals living among our trails and preserves — CT is their home as well as ours. I believe that with education and increased situational awareness, this kind of thing won’t occur again.”
Here’s what happened on Sept. 28. The hiker started out at the Paugussett Trail head in Newtown. Toward the end of his hike he spotted a black bear about 15 yards away. He tried to make himself big and loud to scare the bear away, which is the right thing to do. The bear responded with a jaw slap sound and approached closer.
The hiker made an “offline” tactical maneuver, which is stepping away at a 45-degree angle. He fell on his side; the bear was over him. He “delivered multiple palm strikes to the face of the bear and was able to create enough space where he could run away.” He ran about a third of a mile to the Lake Zoar boat launch in Southbury and called 911. He had a small cut on his forehead and the palm of his hand.
Note: The bear did not knock him over. The bear did not strike or bite him. The bear did not chase him.
Yet state Sen. Craig Miner of Litchfield, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Environment Committee, and state Sen. Eric Berthol, whose district includes Southbury, wasted no time in warning, in a joint statement, that they hoped “it doesn’t take a death for Connecticut to wise up and understand that a hunting season is the only way to get this population under control.”
Never mind that they have been trying for four years now to get a bill to allow bear hunting in the state, but the public hasn’t had an appetite to start killing random bears.
The hiker does not want his experience to be used as justification to kill bears.
“This was not an attack, but an incidental and isolated interaction — provoked by a mix of unlucky circumstances and personal lack of knowledge about dealing with local wildlife in surprise close-quarters engagement,” the hiker said in his statement through OneProtest, an advocacy organization. “I do not feel that the bear involved or the population in our area poses an immediate or hazardous threat to the townsfolk, nor should we operate from a state of knee-jerk reaction towards their presence. I will continue hiking in the area without concern or fear for my well-being.”
He did not want to draw attention to himself or give interviews to the media.
I spoke with Priscilla Feral, president of the Darien-based nonprofit Friends of Animals. Her organization obtained a copy of the state Environmental Conservation Police report, through a Freedom of Information request and shared it with Hearst Connecticut Media. I pulled direct quotes of the incident from that report.
“How many dogs would get punched in the face and not go after you?” she said to put the bear’s reaction in context. The jaw-popping sound is a protective device, like squirrels waving their tail and sending loud chatter when they sense danger.
“If every time we spot a wild animal the answer is it has to die, something is wrong,” she said.
Accurate facts are needed to counter the kill-it response. Black bear attacks on humans are uncommon, and the black bear population isn’t wildly out of control in Connecticut.
Bear hunting advocates point to the death in 2014 of a Rutgers student who was thought to be killed by a 300-pound bear while hiking with four friends and taking photos of the bear. He was the first person killed by a bear in New Jersey in 150 years.
From 1900 to 2007 only 60 fatal bear attacks were recorded and 78 percent of them were in remote areas of Canada and Alaska, according to Lynn Rogers, a Minnesota-based biologist with the Wildlife Research Institute and the North American Bear Center. Speaking of the New Jersey attack she said, “About one black bear out of a million would do that.”
In Connecticut, it appears the black bear population is increasing because more people are reporting sightings in back yards and such places. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection estimated 700 bears lived in Connecticut two years ago. The capacity is for about 2,000 bears.
A recent study out of the University of Connecticut showed that bears are adapting to habitat.
“They are adjusting to living in a habitat shared with humans,” wrote Tracy Rittenhouse, assistant professor of wildlife ecology in UConn’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, and lead scientist on the 2017 study. “American black bears see Connecticut as one big continuous forest with human housing scattered around in it.”
In other words, our low-density housing regulations in some towns are putting out the welcome mats for bears.
“Bears are opportunistic,” Rittenhouse said. “If there is a place where they 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.”
Should we kill them for that? Of course not.
“It’s Connecticut, a heavily populated state,” Feral said. “Where do we expect the indigenous wildlife population to live?”
What kind of a state do we want to live in? questioned Nicole Rivard, of Friends of Animals. “We don’t want to live in a state where a wildlife sighting means it should be shot dead.”
That’s not to say black bears are cute and cuddly. They have individual personalities, but they are wild creatures.
To the native Americans, a bear symbolized courage, physical strength and leadership. Let us be harmonious with nature, appreciate and respect it. Not kill it for existing.