By Gregory B. Hladky

The Hartford (Conn.) Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut’s population of about 700 black bears is growing at a rate of about 10 percent each year, according to wildlife experts, an increase that could more than double the current number of bears in this state over the next decade.

Those predictions and the rising number of bear-human confrontations are leading to renewed calls for legalizing bear hunting in the state. The 2017 Legislature killed a bear hunt bill after fierce opposition from animal rights groups and many nature lovers.

Hunting advocates point to the rising number of bear sightings around the state — 6,276 in the past year — and numerous bear attacks on livestock and pets as evidence of the need to control the bear population. But they are doubtful that lawmakers will take action in time to prevent more serious incidents.

“Somebody’s probably going to have to get hurt before we get a bear hunt,” said Bob Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen. “That’s the feeling of a lot of people I talk to,” he added. “I hope that doesn’t happen.”

Connecticut is the only state in the Northeast with a significant bear population that doesn’t allow bear hunting.

Anti-bear hunt activists argue that a more effective and humane way to deal with the rising number of bears in Connecticut is to educate people about protecting food sources from these clever and always hungry omnivores, and explain to people what to do when they encounter a bear.

Bear hunting hasn’t reduced the number of human-bear confrontations in New Jersey, said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. Since hunting of black bears in that state was resumed in 2010 with the support of Gov. Chris Christie, “aggressive bear incidences haven’t gone down, they’ve stayed about the same,” Tittel said.

But Jason Hawley, a veteran wildlife biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said data he’s seen from New Jersey indicates that bear-human confrontations in that state “certainly did decrease” after bear hunting was authorized.

Hawley said in states that allow bear hunting, a beneficial side effect “is installing a natural fear of humans, which is a good thing.” He said that in Maine, the state with the largest population of black bears in the United States outside Alaska, “you rarely even see a bear. … And if you do see a bear, it’s running full speed away from you.”

“Connecticut bears have no fear of humans,” Hawley said.

In September 2014, 22-year-old Rutgers University student Darsh Patel was killed by a black bear while hiking in a preserve in northwestern New Jersey. He was the first person in modern history to be killed by a bear in that state.

Tittel said New Jersey wildlife officials haven’t done enough to educate people about how to deal with bears and how to protect potential food sources. Tittel predicts that bear hunting in New Jersey will be banned once Christie leaves office next year.

“We’re not necessarily opposed to hunting,” Tittel said, but added that the system used in New Jersey “is more of a trophy hunt than a management hunt. They go after the big bears.”

Earlier this year, Florida wildlife officials decided to halt that state’s bear hunts for two years while they study bear management systems and how to reduce bear-human confrontations.

A study by University of Connecticut researchers concluded that the highest concentrations of bears in Connecticut are found not in the most remote areas but in “exurban areas,” where there is woodland and scattered houses where they can forage for garbage seeds from bird feeders.