A few days ago, someone on a neighborhood online forum reported seeing a young American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) romping through their backyard. Everyone was cautioned to stay indoors and be careful. Being careful around charismatic megafauna is always a good idea, but changing your life by not going outside can be an overreaction.
Black Bear populations have been increasing in the past few decades and they are seen more and more often, but it hasn’t always been that way. Black bears like mature forests, and the changes in New England’s landscape over time have really had an effect on them. By the early 1800s, Connecticut’s forests were being cleared for wood to heat homes and power factories. Farmers were raising Merino sheep. On April 22, 1817, Noah Webster wrote in the Connecticut Courant that “Connecticut could no longer sustain the amount of wood burned each year in homes.” By around 1850, almost 80% of Connecticut was open land. It was said that you could see Long Island Sound from many hill farms in Litchfield County.
By that time, the Black Bear was extirpated from Connecticut (extinct here but present elsewhere). After 1850, many in Connecticut gave up their hardscrabble farms and either migrated to the fertile lands of the Midwest or started to work in factories. Gradually, the forests returned. American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) was the dominant tree, until the Chestnut Blight of the 1930s. Oaks (Quercus spp.) and hickories (Carya spp.) with their hard mast—acorns and nuts—replaced it and became more common. This mast is an important food source for black bears. As these forests matured, the bears returned, moving in from neighboring states. Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection biologist Paul Rego estimates the Connecticut Black Bear population this year at around 800, with the potential to eventually reach 3,000. Most of the population lives in northwestern Connecticut. You can see a map of bear sightings by town, and report a sighting.
The American Black Bear is North America’s smallest bear. Adults can grow to five or six feet (almost two meters) head to toe. Adult males (boars) can weigh 150 to 450 pounds (about 70 to 200 kilograms). Females (sows) can reach 45 to 100 pounds (20 to 45 kilograms). Bears are omnivorous and will eat grasses, forbs (other herbaceous plants), nuts, berries, insects, and carrion. Occasionally, bears prey on small mammals, livestock, and even deer. Their extremely good sense of smell can also lead them to your bird feeders and garbage cans. Many northern Connecticut residents cannot put their feeders out until mid-December and have to take them down in early March. In winter, bears find a den under a fallen tree or a rocky ledge. While there, they do not feed, drink, or defecate. Females den separately. Cubs (females have an average of two to three young) will nurse from their mother while she is sleeping. Adult bears are not true hibernators. They don’t go into a deep sleep and will occasionally wake up if disturbed.
What should you do if you see a bear? Observe it only from a safe distance. Advertise your presence by shouting and waving your arms. Never feed or try to attract bears. Never leave pet food outside. Bears can be aggressive if they become used to being fed and learn to associate food with people. This could lead to problem bears being destroyed. Report a bear sighting to the Connecticut DEEP.
And what if you surprise a bear? Luckily, a bear has really good hearing in addition to an amazing sense of smell, so surprising one is unlikely. But if you do surprise a bear, walk slowly away facing the bear and do not run. A growing Black Bear population will mean more interactions with people. It is up to all of us to keep both bears and people safe.