The recent revelation by the State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) that a legal hunting season just might be a way of managing Connecticut's burgeoning black bear population is bound to start potential bruin hunters drooling and animal rights advocates frothing at the mouth.
Accordingly, when the Hartford Courant reported Tuesday that DEEP has already drawn up a proposal for a bear-hunt lottery and forwarded it to Gov. Malloy for review (which DEEP denies), most savvy observers predicted spirited opposition that would bog the proposal down.
Several hundred black bears, perhaps 500 in all, now inhabit the state, according to DEEP's Wildlife Bureau. From Jan. 10, 2011, to this past Monday, bear sightings in the state, many of them repeat reports of the same bears, totaled 2,758. Conflicts with humans are mounting as bears search out meals at backyard bird feeders and in outdoor trash receptacles. Most bears are in the state's northwest corner but they are present virtually from border to border. They show up even in cities such as New Haven and Waterbury. High concentrations of sightings can be a result of high-density human populations as well as large numbers of bears.
Bear hunts in states such as New Jersey have provoked heated controversy. Opponents have included not just animal rights groups but some mainstream conservation organizations, such as the Sierra Club. If past experience is any guide, the prospect of a Connecticut bear hunt will inspire both opponents and proponents to evoke sharply contrasting images of the black bear. These will range from a slavering mankiller to a smiling, benign Yogi or Smokey, the human's friend.
The merits of a bear hunt aside, the black bear is neither of its caricatures. Although not nearly as dangerous as the brown bear, which includes the feared grizzly, the black is not exactly a teddy bear. According to a study by bear expert Dr. Stephen Herrero of Canada's University of Calgary, more than 50 people have been killed by black bears in Canada, Alaska and the lower 48 states since the 1960s. Contrary to the popular belief that most black bear attacks are by females protecting young, Herrero found that 92 percent of the incidents that were studied were by lone males intent on eating someone. One of the best-documented sprees of attacks on people by hungry black bears occurred in 1963, when the wild blueberry crop — a bear staple — failed. Bears attacked fishermen, hunters, a canoeist and killed a miner by his claim.
Before proceeding, I should mention that I am a hunter. However, I have absolutely no desire to hunt and kill a bear of any species. If I did, I probably would be sorry for a long time afterward, although I have no objection to other hunters legally pursuing them. Hunting can be a very subjective pursuit. I feel the same way about elephants as I do bears. I have interacted with elephants many times while on assignments in Africa, and some of the pachyderms were downright unfriendly. While I have killed my fair share of other species, elephant hunting has no appeal for me.
Herrero has been quoted as noting that the percentage of fatalities is extremely low compared to millions of interactions between humans and black bears that occur annually. Some of these interactions are marked by incredible stupidity on the part of the humans involved. While researching a book on dangerous confrontations between people and animals, I came up with some remarkable examples, many of which occurred in national parks where visitors come into close proximity with bears.
One story has a husband trying to shove a black bear into the front seat with his wife, presumably to take a photo. In another incident, parents coated a child's face with candy so they could snap a picture of a bear licking the kid's face. Such tales may be apocryphal, but they are not as preposterous as they may sound, because people take similar risks with bears all the time. Park rangers continually must discourage visitors from offering hands, arms, legs and faces to bears along with food.
Personally, I am happy with Connecticut's abundance of bears. Growing up in Waterbury during the 1940s and 1950s, I remember walking through what one nature writer of the time called the "barren and empty New England woods." Seeing a woodpecker was a treat. A bear? Unheard of.
Whatever the pros and cons of a bear season may be, I hope that if the issue arises, it will be decided by cold, hard science, not human emotion or special interests.
The Connecticut Audubon Center at Glastonbury holds nature walks in Earle Park starting Jan. 14 and continuing the second Saturday of each month. For information call 860-633-8402 from Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
CTRI Coastal Fly Fishers holds fly-tying sessions at Rivers End Tackle, 440 Boston Post Rd., Old Saybrook, Sundays in January from noon to 3 p.m. Bring your own vise and materials. Sessions are informal and open to all.