Conservationists say up to 800 black bears roam Connecticut

SALISBURY >> “A fed bear is a dead bear” — so goes a conservationist group saying that was recited and explained during a recent lecture at Noble Horizons Retirement Community.

Black bear sightings in the area have become more prevalent, and residents are encouraged to take down their bird feeders during the spring and summer months, advised conservationist Paul Colburn during a presentation entitled “Black Bears in Connecticut.”

Colburn, who is a certified master wildlife conservationist from the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, exhibited a bear pelt and skull and provided to an audience of 75 mostly-senior attendees facts about the state’s growing black bear population and tips to discourage bear-human interactions.

“It is important to find what is going on with black bear population now and how to live with them,” Colburn said.

Colburn said there are about 700,000 black bears in North America, from Alaska to Mexico. Of the estimated 350,000 in the U.S., Connecticut currently has anywhere from 700 to 800 bears, he said, adding that Salisbury has had 82 sightings during the fiscal year.

A resident of Marlborough, Colburn explained the current black bear explosion is due to environmental factors conducive to bear populations, such as cover, space, food, and water.

“Sixty percent of Connecticut is forested, with plenty of habitats for bears,” he said.

He showed a PowerPoint slide comparing percentage of Connecticut forestation and the impact it had on the bear population. He said that in 1650, the state was just shy of being 100 percent forested under the stewardship of Native American tribes. When the European arrived, produce- and sheep-farming dramatically decreased forestation to the point where in the year 1850, only 20 percent of Connecticut was forested. Bears were trapped, shot, and poisoned. He said, “Black bears had been under siege for 200 years. The settlers didn’t have the respect for bears, which are considered to have powerful spiritual power by Native Americans.”

Have bears been seen in your town? Check out the list of black bear sightings across Connecticut.

Colburn said the Ursus americanus species comes in the colors of black, brown, cinnamon, and in some regions of British Columbia in Canada, white. He said they live into their 20s and possess excellent senses of smell and hearing. The males can stand 6 feet tall and weigh 450 pounds. Their sharp claws are said to measure in some cases 11 inches. “This is a very, very powerful and strong animal that is not to be underestimated,” Colburn stated.

Colburn also passed around to the audience black rubber facsimiles of a black bear’s paws and scat. A bear’s skull and pelt were exhibited on the table beside Colburn.

In the event of a bear encounter, Colburn advised not to run away or climb a tree to escape.

“They are excellent climbers with strong claws that can support several hundred pounds,” he said. “They can run 35 miles per hour. That is 51.33 feet per second.”

Colburn said later that the bears can climb up to 80 feet on a tree, adding, “They look like an ungainly animal, but when they want to, they can get somewhere quickly. In five seconds, they can run an entire football field to the goal line. Don’t run from a black bear. Running can also elicit a predatory response in an animal that is not aggressive.”

Despite their fearsome appearance, Colburn pointed out, “Bears are very timid of people.” He said that if a hiker in the forest sees a bear, chances are that there are 10 bears that remain unseen. “With the human presence, their natural inclination is to leave the area,” he said. “I don’t know if it is an instinct or a collective memory that they are afraid of us for what was done in the past.”

Nonetheless, he said that black bears are attracted to some human habitats. “The balance is thrown off by leaving food outside,” he said. “This means bird feeders, compost piles, and garbage.”

He added the bears are also attracted to food and road kill on the side of roads, leading to more motor vehicle accidents per year nationally. “The boars (the males) are active at night, and between their dark coat and the fact that people drive crazy now, this has led to 45 bears being struck and killed.”

Colburn said that black bears are omnivores as well as opportunistic carnivores.

“Anything they can get, they’ll take,” he said, which is he advised residents to get rid of bird feeders and put out garbage only during trash-collection days. Livestock and pet foods should also not be left outside, he said.

“If a bear becomes comfortable with getting food in human habitats, they become what is called ‘habituated,’” he said. “Their natural timidity disappears when it associates food with people.” These problem bears can in some cases lead to human injuries and death, which results in wildlife authorities fatally shooting the bear. Hence, he reiterated out the DEEP saying: “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

The three-month DEEP adult-education class-and-field-work program in which Colburn explained he received his certification is dedicated to developing volunteers who can provide outreach and education for state agencies, environmental organizations, schools, and local groups. Colburn said he has given 91 presentations so far this year, including a lecture on bobcats at the Simsbury Public Library in Simsbury. He was also a past president of the former Marlborough environmental group Residents Advocating Conservation.

Colburn advised attendees to report from a safe distance any black bear sightings to DEEP at 860-424-3011, and to share what was learned during the presentation with five friends or neighbors. He said, “Today, we can reach almost 100 but if you share with five other people, 600 will know what you know.”