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EARTH MATTERS Research shows black bears like living near humans

November 24, 2018

There are about 500 Dunkin Donuts stores in Connecticut — basically about three each for the 169 towns in the state.

Some towns may be without even one. Cities seem to have one of every corner, the better to serve the chocolate-glazed-and-vanilla-bean Coolata-loving public.

“Dunkin Donuts knows human behaviors,” said Tracy Rittenhouse, an associate professor of natural resources and the environment at the University of Connecticut.

Rittenhouse was speaking to a packed house at the annual Haskins Lecture, presented by the Aspetuck Land Trust at the Unitarian Church in Westport earlier this month.

She was talking about black bears, not crullers and coffee.

But her research shows this: inadvertently, we’ve set up feeding stations, like Dunkin Donut shops, for bears in our spaciously-zoned, well-wooded towns. Instead of Munchkins, they’re chowing down on bird seed and garbage.

But the state black bears are doing a Goldilocks routine. Too crowded, and they’ll stay away — they generally avoid people. But too empty and they’ll look for more promising digs.

What’s just right is the exurbs — posh suburban towns that have lots of open space between houses. The homes give them access to extra food. The woods give them places to den in winter, nuts to eat in fall, and open space to beat a quick retreat when humans approach.

And they have no predators in the state. Their numbers are increasing mightily.

“We might have 700 bears in the state, but I think that’s a conservative number,” said Jason Hawley, a wildlife biologist with state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “It could be high as 1,000.”

And when people see them, they call their first selectman.

“Oh yes,’’ said New Fairfield First Selectman Pat Del Monoco. “It’s pretty frequent. It’s been pretty constant from the spring until the last couple of weeks.”

Bridgewater First Selectman Curtis Read said his town, bordered on the south by both Lake Lillinonah and the Shepaug River, may be a sort of bear trap. They travel south, he said, until they hit water. Then, they decide to stay.

“We’ve got bears with tags, bears with babies,” Read said. “We’ve got all types. They’re becoming a nuisance.”

The DEEP’s Hawley said there were about 30 bear break-ins at houses this year — mostly in bear-heavy Farmington River Valley towns.

His guess, is that only a few bears were responsible for all these kitchen cupboard raids.

“One time we had 15 break-ins in the town of Norfolk,” Hawley said. “Only one or two bears were doing it.”

But the fear is that because black bears live close to people, and have voracious appetites, they’ll find human food stored inside houses too tempting to resist.

“I think we’re going to see it more and more,” Hawley said.

Although black bears are native to Connecticut, deforestation in the 19th century and unrestricted hunting made them disappear for a century.

But once the state grew back to mature, nut-producing forests, black bears had a place to live. Slowly, an existing bear population in Massachusetts began moving back into Connecticut in the 1980s.

Rittenhouse and grad student Michael Evans spent four years, from 2010 to 2014, studying the state’s black bear population. They placed food baits inside barbed wire enclosures, then did a DNA analysis of the hair snagged on the wire.

She expected to find that, as in other states, black bears would prefer to live in the least-populated towns in the study areas.

Instead she found that, in Connecticut, bears can tolerate people and choose to live in some proximity to them.

“This the first study that provided solid evidence of that,” she said. “I was shocked.”

Rittenhouse is now working with the DEEP to study bobcat behavior. Preliminary evidence shows that they are choosing to co-exist with humans as well.

There are also coyotes, which after arriving here from the West in the 1950s are now an established part of the state’s ecosystems. They handle being near people with aplomb.

And, of course, there are white-tailed deer pacing through the suburban shrubbery.

Rittenhouse said she considers herself lucky to be a wildlife biologist in a small, un-wild place and study the interplay of people and animals. If big things like black bears are doing well, small things — most bats, many birds and salamanders — are in trouble.

“We have 3.5 million people living on 5,500 square miles of land,’’ she said. “It’s a wonderful place to work.’’

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