HARTFORD – Lawmakers voted down an effort to loosen restrictions on farmers whose crops, livestock and beehives have been damaged by wildlife – which would have allowed them to get state approval to kill black bears that are killing farm animals or damaging crops, something Connecticut farmers say is a growing issue.
‘Black bears have thrived in Connecticut’s restored woodlands, growing to an estimated population of 1,200. In mid-March, bears were spotted on camera entering a pig pen in New Milford, and those kinds of interactions with bears have increased dramatically in recent years.
Black bears have become a part of life in Connecticut – especially in the northwest corner, but more and more in other parts of the state. Even Old Saybrook, the shoreline town on the western bank of the Connecticut River, recorded 22 black bear sightings in 2021, according to DEEP.
It’s led to a reckoning in towns with large bear populations – some of which have pushed residents to make their homes less attractive to bears, the Hartford Courant reported – and in the state legislature, where lawmakers have discussed some form of a bear hunting season for years.
State Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, a member of the Environment Committee who represents the northwest part of the state where bears and bear interactions are most common, has been a leading proponent for a bear season in past sessions.
With that effort stymied repeatedly amid opposition from wildlife advocates who say humans can do more to peacefully coexist with bears, Miner advocated for a more limited proposal this year – let farmers protect their crops, livestock and beehives from hungry bears and other wildlife.
Criticized by wildlife advocates as an effort to create a backdoor into a bear season, that measure has failed as well – with the General Assembly’s Environment Committee voting 18-13 against advancing the bill to the full House and Senate, even as skeptical lawmakers acknowledged they were going to have to address the bear question, sooner or later.
State Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, who represents the northwest corner, said she was reluctantly opposed to the bill because she was concerned it didn’t require the farmer to try non-lethal methods before requesting a permit to kill a bear. She also said the bill didn’t address the issues faced by the people she is most concerned about – older people who live in the woods.
“I have older residents who live at the edge of the woods, or in the woods, who have bear coming into their homes, and they’re fearful of opening their windows in the summertime,” Horn said. “If we care about [rural] communities – and we have sprawled over the land to such a degree that we are increasing interactions with bears, we owe it to them to do something to limit those interactions. I don’t think this bill does that alone.”
Horn said she was disappointed that lawmakers weren’t looking at increasing resources for non-lethal ways to limit interactions between bears and humans. “Aversive training” – harassing bears so they learn to avoid humans – can be effective, she said, but it requires resources and commitment from trained professionals at DEEP to be effective.
Farms provide ready food source for wild predators
Coping with wildlife, whether bears, coyotes, or deer, is a fact of life for farmers.
Karen Kalenauskas, who has a family farm in Litchfield County with beef cows, lamb and corn and hay fields, said her livestock have been attacked by coyotes to the point that she won’t even sell a lamb or calf to a small farmer without making sure they are prepared to deal with predators.
Kalenauskas and Connecticut Farm Bureau President Joan Nichols both have heard plenty of stories from other farmers about damage they’ve had from wild predators: bears tearing up corn fields, knocking down electric fencing, trying to pry their way into barns and chicken coops where farmers have tried to shelter their animals from danger. Coyotes digging under fences and finding their way into enclosures.
Non-lethal measures – like electric fencing and guardian dogs – are expensive and not always effective at stopping tricky and persistent predators, and farmers can’t keep watch day and night to ward off nocturnal animals.
“It’s a very real issue that we’re all dealing with,” Kalenauskas said.
Bears and coyotes are opportunistic eaters, and farms provide a ready source of food for them. But their source of food is the farm’s source of income, and losing a calf or beehives could cost a farmer hundreds or thousands of dollars.
“Farmers know that they have to work with wildlife – I don’t think there’s any farmer out there who wants to annihilate our native wildlife,” Nichols said. “They do their best to protect the livestock, they put fencing up, they secure the building, they do everything possible. But you get opportunistic wildlife, and they’re very hard to control. They just keep coming back.”
The problem for farmers is that it’s not clear how much leeway they have to kill predators that are damaging their crops and livestock. They can request permits to kill deer that damage their crops, outside of deer season. And they can request permits to kill “fur-bearing” animals that cause damage – something that is mainly used for coyotes and raccoons.
DEEP rarely rejects those permit applications, DEEP wildlife biologist Jenny Dickson told the Environment Committee in March. As long as the farmer provides evidence of the damage they’ve experienced, and evidence that they’ve used non-lethal methods, DEEP will grant the permit, she said.
“Usually by the time they come to us, they’ve already tried a number of non-lethal methods to discourage the issue,” Dickson said. “That’s all the documentation they have to provide to us before we issue the permit.”
“Death penalty” for black bears
At a public hearing and in submitted testimony, wildlife advocates have passionately opposed legislation allowing a bear hunting season.
Jo-Anne Basile, executive director of CT Votes for Animals, said in written testimony that farmers should have the right to defend their livelihood, but said state law already gives them that protection.
DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes said it’s not clear whether the existing statute would allow a farmer to kill a bear that was damaging their crops, since black bears are a protected species. DEEP has asked the Attorney General’s office for an opinion on that, but it hasn’t been settled, she said.
Dickson said nobody has requested a permit to kill a bear yet because of that confusion. But farmers who have had their crops damaged by bears don’t have a clear answer on how to address the problem.
Dickson said that DEEP does “routinely get a number of complaints” from people whose livestock have been killed, something that is increasingly an issue in Connecticut. There are also complaints about damage to beehives and crops – especially corn, Dickson said.
“We had a lot of issues with livestock last year: sheep, pigs, goats, donkeys – rabbits and chickens, too – but the bigger livestock was certainly an issue” Dickson said. “We’ve had corn damage in the neighborhood of 8 or 10 acres at a time.”
Basile wrote that the bill was “a hunting bill wrapped up in farmers’ overalls.” The bill was too broad, giving “hobby” beekeepers and farmers the same rights to kill predators as people who make their living from farming, Basile said.
It also did not set standards for what level of damage could trigger a hunt, or how much farmers had to use non-lethal methods before seeking a lethal permit, Basile said. And by allowing a permitted hunter to keep the kill, the bill would create an incentive to kill “highly prized animals such as bears and bobcats,” something that is now considered poaching, Basile said.
Miner said he tried to address those concerns, working with committee leadership to change the language of the bill so that only someone who had farming as their primary source of income could receive a permit, and making it so DEEP would take the remains of any animals killed. But the majority of the committee were not convinced.
State Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, who voted against the bill, called it a “wildlife slaughter bill” that would open up hunting across the state “day and night.” He said that killing a bear for being attracted to a source of food doesn’t accomplish anything, because another bear would become attracted to the same source of food.
“The death penalty for animals behaving naturally without causing any harm to humans – being killed for damages to property or livestock – I believe is overkill,” Michel said.
Miner, clearly frustrated with the opposition even before the vote was tallied, told the committee that the problem isn’t going to go away just because they can’t agree on bill language. Miner said he expected that he would receive calls from people who live in the districts of lawmakers who voted against the bill, asking why it didn’t pass.
The truth is that, if someone were to request a permit under the bill, an animal is already dead, Miner said.
“Sure as I’m sitting here, within the next week, I’m going to get another phone call, or another Facebook post, or another you-name-it from somebody – and it won’t necessarily be in the northwest corner – from someone who’s lost an animal that was once alive,” Miner said. “Does anyone really understand what happens? Does anyone really understand the horror that goes on inside a shed or a chicken coop?”