Spring in Connecticut brings flowers, budding trees and lots of birds.
But it also brings black bears out of hibernation, and often with a family in tow.
Bears have been seen in back yards in and around Litchfield County during the last few weeks. A recent Facebook post from a local resident showed a mother bear with four tiny cubs trying several time and then successfully crossing Winsted Road, while a row of cars waited for her to get the babies safely to the other side.
Another Torrington resident posted photos of a mother bear with three more mature cubs in their back yard, milling around near a bird feeder.
That’s the key to why they’re in the yard — easy access to food. Will Healey from the Department of Environmental Protection’s Wildlife Division said feeding bears is one of the most dangerous things a homeowner can do.
“This is certainly the time of year that people are having sightings,” Healey said. “People are used to them, but it’s still important to remember how to (live) with black bears.
‘The worst thing you can do is intentionally feed a bear,” he said. “We’ve been very vocal about it during the past few years.”
The DEEP has an entire page of its website devoted to black bears at portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife. According to DEEP, about 370 bear sightings have been reported in the state so far in 2021.
With DEEP’s encouragement, some towns have established their own ordinances that prohibit feeding bears.
“Our division has also done some Zoom meetings with towns that want to do an ordinance, and we’ve also pursued for the past few years, a statewide ban on feeding bears,” Healey said. “We’ll continue to work on that this year as well. That’s the No. 1 thing — don’t feed them.”
Torrington resident Brenda Wilson posted photos last week of a mother and three mature cubs in her yard.
“I took the photos on Friday (March 26),” she said. “The scary part about it is that I’m only a couple of houses down from Walmart (on East Main Street/Route 202). There’s some trees and a stone wall behind me, and if you go up a little further there’s some woods, but they were right there in the yard.”
Wilson said she was visited by a bear in November, and it took her by surprise.
“I thought it was safe to put a suet feeder out. But one night I heard a noise, and there was a black bear at the feeder,” she said.
Healey said people unintentionally feed bears, but that there’s an easy way to avoid that mistake. The DEEP’s video, “There’s no free lunch” illustrates that problem, encouraging people to put the feeders away for a while.
“Bird feeders are a big attraction for bears,” he said. “We have an amazing variety of birds here, and it’s wonderful to see them, but you have to recognize that it’s going to attract larger customers. If a bear knows there’s a reliable food source, they’re going to go there. If you want to feed birds, do it in the winter months, when bears are less likely to be around.”
Another pitfall for homeowners are garbage cans: they’re fragrant and easy to get into.
“Put out the cans before pickup, the morning of your collection day,” he said. “Put a little ammonia on top of the bag and the receptacle, to make it less palatable for a bear.
“Grills are another attraction,” he said. “If you can, keep your grill in a garage or enclosure. If you can’t do that, be sure you clean it after cooking. Get the drippings out. Those smells can be detected by a bear from a distance.
“That’s the touchy part,” Healey said. “We think it’s OK, because we can’t smell anything. But they can.”
So far this year, only a few bear incidents have been reported. “We’ve had at least one bear vs chicken coop situation reported,” Healey said. “Staff have heard from several folks in Litchfield County reporting property damage, like feeders pulled down or other items tipped over. It’s possible that (since the) weather warmed up suddenly, some folks were caught off guard, with feeders still up and suet still out.”
Healey advised people with coops and pens to be sure they’re sturdy, and if possible, protect them with electric fencing. Beehives, berry bushes and other livestock such as goats and sheep can be protected by electric fencing, he said.
Another place people encounter bears in the springtime is the woods, while hiking or picnicking, with their dogs. Another video by the DEEP illustrates what to do.
“That’s a big thing too,” Healey said. “Keep your dog leashed up, when you’re in the woods. That’s the best rule of thumb. People trust their dogs and let them run loose, but there’s been a significant number of incidents involving people coming across bears (in the woods) over the years, and any altercation has been precipitated by a dog encountering a bear.
“A bear with cubs that comes across a dog in the woods, they’re going to defend those cubs,” he said. “If you keep the dog on a leash in the woods, it’s a great way to keep them safe.”
The DEEP also has tips to frighten a bear away if you meet them face to face: Shout loudly, wave your arms, clap your hands and bring an air horn to scare them. Never run, just walk slowly.
Above all, Healey said, people should use common sense.
“We always say, they’re awe-inspiring, and in some parts of our state, they’re not uncommon,” he said. “But in other parts of the state, they are not. People want to take photos, and that’s understandable, but it’s not safe. Keep your distance and let the bear do its thing. They’ll eventually find their way back to safety, and they’re only around because of food.”
Although most mother bears have one or two cubs, it’s not unusual to see a sow with three or four, Healey said.
“Several cubs is not unusual,” he said. “Two is most common, but if females are in good body condition and environmental factors are favorable, three or four are possible. Three is probably more common than four.”
If a bear is in a densely populated area, contact the DEEP Wildlife Division at 860-424-3011 or DEEP Dispatch at 860-424-3333, to report the sighting and get advice.
“The mere presence of a bear does not necessitate its removal. However, the department may try to remove bears from urban locations when there is little likelihood that they will leave on their own and when they are in positions where darting is feasible. The department attempts to monitor bear activity in developed areas in coordination with local public safety officials,” according to the DEEP.
Tagged bears are also common; and they’re not tagged because they’re “problem” animals. It’s a way for the DEEP to monitor them and their behavior, according to the website.
Black bears are found throughout much of the state. In 2019, approximately 7,300 bear sightings from 150 of Connecticut’s 169 towns were reported to the DEEP Wildlife Division. Connecticut has a healthy and increasing bear population with the highest concentration in the northwest region of the state.
“This is the best time of year to remind people of best practices when it comes to bears,” Healey said. “If we play our part, we can coexist with them. It’s all about food; bears have a healthy fear of humans. But if they lose that, they could become more aggressive. It’s about protecting them.”