Connecticut's Black Bears - Debunking the Myths

It's no longer a secret Connecticut, yes we have black bears.

It's spring and the perfect weather to shake off a winter hibernation phenomena up here in New England, cabin fever. Connecticut residents tend to turn their activities outdoors, while the native Black Bear population has also recently stirred from their own winter's hibernation. Hungry and thin, they set out to wander a huge swath of territory in search of opportunistic meals.  

Unfortunately, this is also the time of year when endless sensational half-truths and myths about bears are perpetuated by misinformed people. I'm writing this in the interest of tempering these overblown, sometimes bizarre Black bear myths in southern New England with hopes that rural Connecticut residents can learn to co-exist with these amazing, beautiful, powerful and intelligent animals. 

Cinnamon phase Black bear yearling photo

This 2-year-old cinnamon phase Black Bear I photographed close-up in Montana. Note both the head and ears are UP. This is a Black bear that is not alarmed or threatened by my presence. I did NOT approach the bear, she went along her merry way scraping Huckleberries off the bushes.

 

Some Connecticut Bear Facts

(Ursus americanus) is the scientific name for the North American Black Bear. Black Bears are the only species of Bears that are native to New England and are the most common species by far in all of North America. There are 11 sub-species of black bear. They are forest dwellers and generally quite reclusive. They thrive on the cover of thick forest as habitat and depend on it for their own protection. The more inaccessible the terrain the better. Black bears are not strictly meat eaters (carnivores) they are omnivores that feed predominantly on a thick understory of vegetation that supplies the bears with huge quantities of edibles. Nuts, berries, tender shoots of ferns, insect larvae, salamanders, fish, chipmunks, and squirrels are all on the menu. Underground yellow-jacket nest and carpenter ants also provide calories. When natural food becomes scarce, our resident bears are forced to become more opportunistic when it comes to locating a food source. I'll dwell on this fact further into my article. 

The largest Black bears outside of Alaska occur in the northeastern USA, especially in Pennsylvania. Adult males that have been killed on hunts commonly weigh in excess of 500 lbs and modern day records indicate bears weighing in excess of 709 lbs and measuring over 8 ft. in length. Typically the average adult Black bear found in southern New England will be around 150-200 lbs for a sow (female) and 275-450 lbs for an adult (male) boar. Any bear over 300 lbs. when viewed from the eyes of a human outside of the protection of a sturdy building or vehicle will look quite impressive!  Adult bears may live as long as 25 years in the wild, and that is an impressive acknowledgment of the animals intelligence and ability to stay out of sight considering the population density as rural as it may seem in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut.

 

MIsconception - Bears are a Nuisance

I beg your pardon. Humans are the nuisance, bears are the natives and YES we can co-exist peacefully if you educate yourself about their requirements. As for myself, I find it to be disturbing and needing an immediate attitude adjustment when our residents are so quick to fault native species and not look at how much environmental damage and over development we as humans are responsible for.

Here's an example: a few short years ago my wife and I are enjoying the Big E Fair in Springfield Massachusetts and visiting the DEEP booth in the Massachusetts building. They were trying to educate the general public on how to co-exist and mitigate negative encounters with bears as their numbers rebound not coincidentally with the forest expanding over long forgotten farmlands.

A woman with 2 kids in tow stopped and voiced strong resentment towards bears and demanded that "all the bears should be killed for good." My wife was infuriated by her ignorance and to her credit challenged her and demanded to know why she was so entitled. The woman turned to all of us and blurted out "they are a danger to my children." My wife asked where she lived. She did not reside in a rural area and was a suburbanite.

The folks at the DEEP also defended the native bears and explained she virtually had no chance of ever being "lucky enough" to see a bear. My wife explained that she should "focus her attentions on things that are a genuine risk to her children's safety and be less concerned with the extermination of an entire species".

This was a good example of the misconceptions that have been perpetuated by the misinformed public. Bobcats and Fisher cats (a large weasel) can be added to this list of species residents fear without cause.

When and why Bears Seek a Food Source Outside of their Domain  

For the last 20 years, this usually happened in the rural countryside of the northwest corner of sparsely settled areas in Connecticut and neighboring states. When natural food sources dwindle or climatic changes force hungry bears to find a source of calories they drift from the more comfortable confines of heavily forested areas like Norfolk, Winchester, Goshen, Cornwall or Warren Ct and find their way to the cul-de-sac developed areas of towns like New Milford, New Fairfield or even Brookfield. In 2016, they even began showing up near populous areas like Danbury, Waterbury, and points beyond. Folks that reside in the more rural back country take the bear visitations in stride and usually know how to deal with the wandering creatures. I lived in Warren for nearly 20 years and my wife and I spotted more bears than we even spotted our 2 closest neighbors during that time period. Being bear aware was a way of life for us.

One other reason bears leave their territory is to escape other more dominant and larger individuals and seek new areas to call home.

As stated above, black bears are opportunistic and will seek out the easiest means to find a quick meal. They are witty, quite crafty and have the ability to map out their territory by memory. Their sense of smell is beyond what we can comprehend. Once YOU supply them with an easy and quick meal, this becomes a positive experience for the bear and a revisit to your yard may be in your near future. Defining what bears have learned to look for is most important.

What Types of Meals are We Unwittingly Offering Bears? 

Bears have learned to identify garbage cans and birdfeeders as easy food sources. Bird seed is a tasty morsel. A strong steel post in concrete with a birdhouse atop can easily be pushed over and emptied. Your pet's food dishes when left outdoors are easy pickings especially since we both know you leave them on the front porch or back deck. That is a bad habit that has evolved from human laziness. Not only are bears drawn by the odor of pet food, so are Raccoons and Opossum which are prone to rabies. Bird feeders are simply not a necessity, especially in rural regions. Birds have no reason to rely on you for food, they migrate for thousands of miles every year without your assistance. Feed your pets, and bring in the pets dishes.

Leaving ground level doors and windows ajar is asking for trouble. I've heard so many times where they have surprised homeowners roaming an open garage or entering a kitchen through a screen patio door. Leftover pizza on the counter can be detected hundreds of yards away. Unfortunately, bears entering homes have become more common as the bear population continues to grow back into their old habitat.

Bear Proofing your Garbage Cans

I found a very simple method to mitigate this negative interaction that works wonders and is cheap. If your garbage cans have been vandalized by a bear picking up the scattered remnants is an awful task. Yes, it's happened to me. I've heard all sorts of silly ideas like putting moth balls in the garbage bags or spraying ammonia or Windex in the garbage before bagging. Forget it.

The best method is as simple as picking up a can of "Engine Brite" or "Gunk" from your local automotive store. No, I'm not going to tell you to spray the bear with it. I have discovered from trial and error they hate the odor of Engine Brite. (Our cans were tipped and emptied at one point as often as I put them out)  I sprayed the inside of our garbage cans liberally with the stuff. It applies kinda thick, it's not going to dissipate for a few weeks unless you rinse the cans out. The garbage you place IN the bins will soak the awful odor and flavor of Engine Brite and ruin a perfectly good meal of easy leftovers for visiting bears. He or she will cross your location of their list of favorite places to dine and look elsewhere. Congratulations, you just made this a negative experience for the wandering bear.

The key is, make it your responsibility and not contribute to a positive experience for the wild creatures when they seek an easy food source near your homes. Fed bears are dead bears. They will quickly learn to associate humans with food if youre careless. 

Silly Myth - Bears cannot see well

Don't believe it. This is a common misconception being we know that a bears sense of smell is off the hook. This myth started due to the belief that a bears sense of smell compensated for a lack of keen eyesight. This is NOT the case. Humans have poor eyesight when compared to most other mammal species on earth. Bears can see better than us. They see in color, and their eyes also possess a reflective layer that allows them to see well at night.

Bear Sighting Stats can be Misleading - Myths in Numbers

Lately I've seen some misleading stats published in the media with regards to reported bear sightings. For instance, in a neighboring town, I read there were 55 reported sightings for the 2016 calendar year.  Certainly, that could make a cause for concern. If the general idea was to alarm humans, those stats could easily be implied in such a manner. Obviously, the average person reading the newspaper article may jump to conclude there are 55 bears that roam the small wooded areas behind their home.

The fact is that most of those sightings were likely the same animal over a 1-2 week span wondering within sight of an entire block of homes in a development. Clearly, a case of jaded figures.

I'm not denying the fact that sightings have increased. The natural habitat regeneration of returning open fields to forest has helped the species rebound from near extermination. Just 15 years ago they estimated roughly 150 bears denned in the northwest hills region. In 2017, that number could be 500-700 individuals. In less than 10 years, the population will increase by 2.5x. This fact will likely lead to permit hunting.

Bears can't Run Downhill

Silly notion. Black bears can run very fast, in fact at speeds of up to 35 or 40 mph for short burst. That is double the speed of the fastest human being on earth. They can outrun you in any direction you choose to run if you're so foolishly inclined to do so.

Black Bear Moms will Attack you to Protect her Cubs

Not the case. Please keep in mind this is aimed towards avid hikers and outdoors exploration. Their first instinct when threatened is to retreat and more often than not, climb trees. Mother black bears will always send their cubs up a tree to escape other predators. This could mean wolves where they co-exist, coyotes and of course humans. As I stated earlier, they are forest dwellers and are dependant on the cover of forest for their existence. Bears are excellent climbers and are quite confident up in trees. This is not to say momma won't turn to face you down once her cubs are safely 20' up a tree, but that is a good opportunity for you to back away from her family and be out of sight to reduce the anxiety on her.

By comparison, Grizzly moms will eliminate you as a threat without provocation, however, Grizzlies only exist in isolated wilderness areas of the northern Rockies of the USA and Canada. The two species behave in different manners are not to be confused. 

When Hiking ......

If you're the outdoorsy type and enjoys hiking, make some noise while hiking and consider doing so in pairs or a small group. Several humans trampling the trail at once are prone to make a little racket and constant chatter. Bear Bell's are yet another myth when it comes to announcing your presence to bears while hiking. No, they don't attract bears or scare them off. The bells just don't make a pitch that travels far enough through the forest to be effective. 

Bears are Unpredictable

If you learn the signals that bears use to communicate, you learn this is also a myth. Unless in the very rare instance a black bear has become desperate enough to hunt a human for food, an encounter in the woods will result with that animal communicating with you in several ways vocally and with body language IF that animal is uncomfortable with your presence.

Every black bear I have encountered in person has either been completely indifferent to my presence or rapidly moved away from me.  I've calmly watched within a 100' distance as a Montana black bear turned over boulders weighing several hundred pounds with ease looking for insects and scraping berries off bushes. The bear would glance in my direction for a moment and move away a few yards. I wasn't lucky by any means, I just know how to read the tell tale signs and most importantly, I did NOT encroach upon the animal.

Bears do offer clues as to how they intend to interact with you. If the ears are up and so is it's head, this is an animal that has little care in the world for you at the distance you are separated. It's always best to retreat slowly and give the bear more space anyhow. If the ears are lowered or turned back, this is an animal that is telling you "I'm a bit annoyed with your presence, drag your ass". If you're on a hiking trail it's best to make noise by speaking calmly and retreating. Bears will also clack their teeth, huff and snort loudly and even slap the ground with their front paws. This is a way to avoid a confrontation with you by trying to scare you off. Take the hint and get out of the area.  

Close Call in Burlington

I recently viewed a video that a female hiker took with her iPhone while hiking in Burlington Connecticut. Two black bears approached her on a well-worn hiking path, the lady did not approach the animals. (she did not retreat either) Eventually, the larger of the two approached her and opened it's mouth as if to take a nibble from her leg. It did not bite, and she did raise her voice just enough to startle the bear and give her space. I viewed the clip many times and clearly, the bruin was not alarmed by her presence from the start. Head was down and the bear appeared agitated. This could have been mitigated from 75' by retreating sooner and not trying to record the viewing. My personal favorite saying is "When in doubt, get the #!$* out!" 

The bear was clearly tagged by DEEP in both ears and this should tell you it has twice been captured and relocated. Tagged ears are yet another clue this bear does not play well with others. This is an individual that has lost all natural fear of humans. Unless this bear was relocated to the wilderness of Maine or northern tier of New Hampshire, it's possible to find it's way right back to thickly developed human habitat.   

In closing, I hope this has been useful for those that live near bear country in the more rural communities of Connecticut. Conflicts can be mitigated if you are cognizant of your surroundings and are careful not to take too much for granted. Keep in mind at all times that when the "wild stuff" gets scarce, the stuff we leave around as virtual bait becomes easy.

 

About the author

Tom is a professional fine art nature and landscape photographer and an active naturalist with a deep concern for conservation and preservation. He leads guided photography workshops in western Connecticut's Litchfield Hills and the nearby Berkshires of Massachusetts. All skill levels are welcome.