Newton’s bear cub debate illustrates Connecticut’s division over wildlife management

The fate of two little cubs who climbed an 80-foot tree after their mother died raises a question for Connecticut residents.

What should be the relationship between humans and wildlife?

The 4-month-old orphaned brothers, one 11lbs, the other 13lbs, now live at the famed Kilham Bear Center in New Hampshire, where they will be carefully raised for a return to the wild.

But their fate, at first, went in a different direction, said wildlife rehabilitators and members of the state legislature’s Animal Advocacy Caucus, who followed the cubs through the woods after their mother was shot dead by an off-duty police officer in Newtown.

The mother bear, named Bobbi, was so well known for the past four or five years that Newtown residents set up a Facebook page to follow her whereabouts. Bobbi, caught sleeping once in an owner’s hammock, was not known to have injured anyone.

When she was killed on May 12, animal advocates initially thought wildlife experts from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection were tracking her young, said Annie Hornish, director of Connecticut State of the Humane Society of the United States.

But there was no sign of DEEP on May 13, Hornish said, when Newtown residents posted time-stamped photos to social media sites showing the cubs climbing or sitting in trees, as their mother had taught them to. do so in case of danger.

That day, reporters traveled to the neighborhood to speak to Newtown residents, as did DEEP Environmental Police officers, Hornish said.

As of May 14, the cubs were still missing and there was no indication DEEP was looking for them, although residents of Newtown continued to do so, Hornish said. So she and members of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association went to the woods and cornfields Bobbi frequented to see if they could spot the cubs, she said.

Newtown residents said DEEP officers didn’t seem determined to find the cubs, Hornish said.

“DEEP has twice told neighbors to let nature take its course. It’s jargon for “Let ’em die,” Hornish said. “DEEP said the cubs weighed between 25 and 30 pounds, and they weighed less than half that. They would be dead.

They might not have been able to find enough food, and they certainly wouldn’t be strong enough to fight off predators or experienced enough to avoid being hit by a car, Hornish said, and they wouldn’t. would absolutely not have enough body fat to survive the cold. this fall, she said.

She and wildlife rehabilitators returned to the woods on May 15, when association president Laura Simon and others spotted the cubs and called DEEP shortly after 4 p.m., Hornish said.

One of the licensed rehabilitators, Deborah Galle, said DEEP showed up five hours later.

“We have no authority in a situation like this; DEEP has all the authority,” Galle said. “The right way for us is to work with them. So we waited five hours in the woods.

They were joined by State Rep. David Michel of Stamford, co-chair of the Legislature Animal Rights Caucus. Michel said he called other state officials from his caucus, some of whom joined him in the woods. They contacted a TV station and held a press conference.

Michel said he also called Commissioner DEEP’s office and Governor Ned Lamont’s chief of staff.

“DEEP said they were watching the cubs, but DEEP didn’t know where they were until rehabilitators found them. If DEEP really wanted to save the cubs, why didn’t they capture them the day the mother bear was shot, when DEEP was on the scene? said Michael.

“It is only because of the work of animal advocates and the people of Newtown that DEEP has taken action,” said Hornish. “This mother bear was shot. You can’t do that in Connecticut.

It’s illegal to kill a bear in Connecticut, but the law leaves a lot to interpretation. It says a landowner can kill a bear that poses a threat to people or kills livestock, and a farmer can get a permit to kill a bear that damages property used for farming.

The officer who shot the bear works at the Ridgefield Police Department. He has been placed on administrative leave while DEEP officials investigate whether the shooting was justified.

Hornish said the officer herded cattle at his Newtown home.

“He has chickens on the loose,” she said. “It is the responsibility of the owners to protect the chickens from wildlife. It was an avoidable situation.

DEEP spokesman Will Healey said wildlife biologists did not say they would “let nature take its course” with the orphaned cubs.

“Wildlife biologists believe wild animals should have every opportunity to stay wild,” he said.

Biologists saw the cubs on the day their mother was killed, assessed them to be in good health, and “determined that it was in the cubs’ best interest to continue learning to forage for natural food sources in home range, without human interference,” Healey mentioned.

Wildlife biologists continued to monitor the area over the next three days, he said.

The agency hasn’t changed its mind about rescuing the cubs after pressure from the public or the governor’s office, Healey said.

“DEEP has determined that it is in the best interest of the cubs that DEEP wildlife biologists attempt to capture and rehabilitate them due to heightened concerns for their safety following social media attention suggesting action. that would have endangered the cubs,” he said.

Hornish said the case of Bobbi the black bear and her cubs illustrates a growing divide between how state agencies such as DEEP view wildlife and how the public perceives it. She cited a 2018 study, “America’s Wildlife Values: The Social Context of Wildlife Management,” sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which surveyed agencies and citizens in all 50 states.

“The report revealed that the public’s desire for human coexistence with wildlife is growing,” said Hornish, and showed that “DEEP’s old-school hunter culture is not aligned with the public.” .

According to the Connecticut section of the study, 98% of DEEP employees told researchers they had fished and 74% said they had hunted.

But, of Connecticut residents interested in wildlife-related hobbies, only 50% said they would fish and 18% would hunt. Most – 75% – said they enjoy watching wildlife.

Among Connecticut’s general population, only 14% actively fish and 3% report being active hunters.

Healey said human-scale investigations “are complicated and hard to boil down to a black-and-white answer. People rarely fall into one category or the other; it’s often situation-based.

It’s true, said Galle, the wildlife rehabilitator. There are hunters who also like to observe wildlife. DEEP employees appear to be in a tough spot, Galle said.

“How do you reconcile the authorization to hunt and the rehabilitation of wildlife? It’s a tough thing if you have to do both,” she said. “Hunting is where the money is, because of all the license fees. There is no money in rehabilitation.

Michel considers this to be a conflict of interest.

“DEEP puts non-native fish in our rivers because anglers like to catch them, and they don’t do an environmental study to see how it affects the rest of the ecosystem,” Michel said. “Haven’t we learned enough from decades of mistakes? We cannot pretend to manage nature like that.

The debate will continue. Connecticut is now bear country. Earlier this month, one was hanging out in a tree on Strawberry Hill Avenue, amid heavy traffic and high-rise apartment buildings in downtown Stamford.

In the meantime, Bobbi’s boys are in New Hampshire, getting used to life at the Kilham Bear Center, where Ben Kilham has been rehabilitating and releasing injured, orphaned and abandoned black bears for 30 years.

Bobbi’s cubs are “perfectly normal”, Kilham said, although they had been with their mother for about four months and need 18 months. They will be ready to be released into the centre’s 11-acre wooded compound around the same time next year, Kilham said.

He wasn’t surprised to learn that Bobbi wandered around Newtown for five years without hurting anyone.

“His behavior is typical. Black bears are not aggressive; they are not dangerous,” Kilham said. “They’re foraging for food, and they acclimate and get used to people very quickly.”

His nephew, Ethan Kilham, helps him look after the cubs who come to the centre, he said. Ethan names them after the places they were found.

“For one of those cubs, he thinks Newtown is a lot like Newton,” Kilham said. “So maybe Isaac Newton” after the 17th century English physicist who discovered the law of gravity.

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