Bears in the Backyard

Bears in the Backyard

I’ll never forget my first encounter with a black bear in the wild. It was 1972 and I spent spring vacation hiking and camping in Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains with two high school friends. One night a black bear visited our campsite, brushed up against the tent we shared, and tried, in vain, to get the food bag we had hung far out on a tree branch. The bear didn’t stay very long, but it was, nonetheless, a sleepless night to remember.

It has been 52 years since my first encounter with Ursus americanus, and it seems during the last few years I have seen almost daily news reports and social media posts with pictures of black bears. Often, I see pictures shared of a bear roaming the neighborhoods near our home in Putnam. One was photographed walking the boundary line between our property and the next-door neighbor.

There is no escaping the fact that black bears live among us. It is critically important that we recognize their behavior and habits and take important measures to prevent attracting them to our property. We also need to understand what to do when encountering a black bear at our property or when hiking our region’s woods and forests.

For our region, encounters with bears are new to us. Black bears rely on woodlands for food and shelter. In the mid-19th century, at the height of the agriculture period, our region was 80 percent cleared land with forests cut down for farming, and black bears were all but extirpated from the region due to hunting and habitat loss. In the last 100-plus years, our woodlands have grown back and today The Last Green Valley is more than 77 percent forested habitat – perfect for forest dwelling bears. Black bears have rebounded in numbers throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts, and it is important that we educate ourselves so we all can do our part to keep ourselves, our communities and the bears safe.

In February 2024, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) released the most up-to-date data on bears with State of the Bears: A Briefing on Bears in Connecticut. A search for the full title of the report will bring you directly to the document. The following are important and sobering facts about bears in Connecticut.

There are an estimated 1,000-1,200 bears in Connecticut. In 2023, bears were reported in 165 of Connecticut’s 169 towns. Massachusetts, by contrast, has an estimated 4,500 bears while Rhode Island has none. CT DEEP’s long-term research has shown that Connecticut’s bear population has the potential to increase with a reproduction rate of 2.6 cubs per sow (female). It’s a higher rate compared to some other areas within the black bears’ range, due in part to an abundance of suitable habitat and excessive human-related food.

The breeding population of bears in CT is continuing a long-term trend of expansion into more cities and towns. The females disperse over a short distance when leaving their birth range, compared with the longer wandering dispersal of young male bears, and this may explain the reports of bears across Connecticut. Last year, sows with offspring were reported in 80 towns. While mostly in the western half of the state, Putnam, Killingly and Norwich all had at least one report of a sow and cub.

For me, the critical issue is the data reporting bear-human conflicts and, unfortunately, that is showing a long-term increase with 12,384 conflicts reported between 2020 and 2023. About 70 percent of these conflicts involve bird feeders and trash, the two issues that are easiest to mitigate.

All the materials I have read about feeding birds in areas of bear activity is to wait until the bears are hibernating. It’s the coldest time of the year when birds need the seeds the most. This year I waited until January to put up my birdfeeder and took it down in early March. I know most months there are plenty of native seeds and insects available for my avian neighbors.

My town has roadside trash pickup, and I wait until the morning our trash is collected to put our bins at the end of our driveway. Recently, I have seen many pictures on social media of bears carting off trash bags, including in Putnam.

Bears are omnivores and eat a variety of native foods, including grasses, fruits, nuts and berries. They also will seek insects (particularly ants and bees), scavenge carrion and, occasionally, will prey on small mammals and deer fawns. They are opportunistic feeders. Early spring, when they first come out of hibernation and their usual wild foods are in limited supply, is when conflicts are most likely to occur. This also happens in late fall when they are seeking as much protein and fat as possible to prepare for winter hibernation.

If you’re upset about bears tearing down your backyard birdfeeders or raiding your trash cans, imagine what it would be like to have a bear break into your home. Unfortunately accounts of bears in houses are also on the rise over the past 10 years, with less than 10 in 2014 to 67 incidents in 2022. Last year the documented home entries by bears dropped to 35, likely a result of significant rainfall leading to an abundance of plant food during the year. While all the break-ins are occurring in the western half of the state, it is still startling to see.

In 2023 Connecticut legislators enacted Public Act 23-77 that made it unlawful to intentionally feed bears in the state. The act allows individuals to request permits to take (kill) bears when bears are damaging agricultural crops, livestock or apiaries, and when non-lethal responses are unreasonable or ineffective. The act also establishes a right to use deadly force to defend oneself, other people, and one’s pets if attacked, in certain circumstances. Of the six New England states, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts allow bear hunting.

There are several tips on the best ways for us to coexist with bears and the most important thing we can do is to manage our food garbage and other foods that may attract bears. Storing trash in airtight containers in your garage, shed or house before putting it out for your trash hauler on the day of pickup is one important tip. Other tips include cleaning grills soon after use, including emptying and cleaning drip pans usually found under the grill. One of the best tips is to take down bird feeders when bears are active, typically from early March through December.

If you see a bear in your yard or neighborhood, leave it alone and give it an escape route. Keep dogs leashed and do not approach it to get a better look or take a photo. One of the most important things to know is never get between a sow and her cubs. The phrase “momma bear” exists for a reason.

It is important to scare away a bear that is close to your home or looking for human-related food. Making loud noises like banging on a pot, honking a car horn or using an airhorn can scare it away. If you encounter a bear while outdoors, back away from it, let it know you’re there, try to make yourself seem big by raising your arms and absolutely do not run or climb a tree. Black bears are excellent tree climbers. You can also wear a bear bell or carry a small air horn while enjoying our multitude of trails.

For more information on bears I suggest you check out the CT DEEP Fact Sheets on Black Bears. Here you’ll find information about how to report a black bear sighting, map of current sightings in the state and tips on living with black bears. It can be found by searching for CT DEEP Black Bear Fact Sheet.

We live in a beautiful region called The Last Green Valley — and so do black bears. They are here to stay, and while we should appreciate them for the amazing animal they are, bears are also large and potentially dangerous animals. It is up to all of us to learn how to coexist with them.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at or 860-774-3300.


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