WNPR

Where Are Connecticut's Bears Hanging Out?

May 23, 2017

Connecticut's Senate recently killed a measure that would have allowed for limited hunting of black bears in the state. Now, newly published research suggests as black bear populations grow, the animals seem to prefer habitats that might put them in more backyards.

Here's a question: are black bear sightings rising in Connecticut because lots of people see a few bears many times, or are there actually more bears there?

"We always have this Where's Waldo? problem," said Tracy Rittenhouse, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut who studies bear populations in the state.

To get around that existential question, Rittenhouse and her team set up and monitored 150 "hair corrals" in the northwest part of the state from 2012 to 2013. She recently demonstrated a model in a forest near her office on UConn's Storrs campus.

"All it is, is two stands of barbed wire wrapped around four to five trees," Rittenhouse said. "In the middle, we pile some logs and some sticks and we put a little bit of scent lure on it -- so something that's smelly that might attract a bear."

The bear comes in, burrows under the wires, and hopefully, leaves behind a piece of hair, which scientists can then analyze. 

Rittenhouse said the hair's DNA helps identify individual bears, which provides better data for population density estimates.

So what did they find out? 

"What we demonstrated is that bear density is best explained by human housing density," Rittenhouse said. "The cool result from our project is that bear density was higher in 'ex-urban' neighborhoods -- so that's neighborhoods with six to 50 houses per kilometer squared," she said. "There [are] more bears in those types of neighborhoods than in rural places where there [are] no human houses."

Put another way, she said it's not that a lot of people call and report bears in those ex-urban neighborhoods, it's that there are actually more bears.

The research is published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.

She's also compiled a website, which chronicles her research and allows residents to search for bear activity in their neighborhoods.

Rittenhouse said based on this research, she thinks there are about 400 to 450 black bears in Connecticut.