The fatal shooting on May 12 of a mother black bear in Newtown, Connecticut, leaving two cubs orphaned, has understandably sparked widespread outrage and grief. Local residents were familiar with the bear; they knew her as “Bobbi” and have launched Facebook pages in her honor.
With her death, the two cubs—who were born in early 2022 and would have been dependent on their mother until next spring—are not well equipped to make it on their own. Now, both have been safely captured by Newtown and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection officials, and their fate is our most urgent concern.
DEEP is investigating the shooting, which involved an off-duty police officer. Terrible incidents such as this one highlight the fact that state wildlife agencies can always use more capacity and more professional training to handle such scenarios, which are likely to continue to occur.
We are seeking more details on this incident, but it’s certainly a tragedy. A bear’s life has been snuffed out, and two cubs are stranded without a mother. It’s precisely the kind of outcome we try to prevent through our wildlife conflict resolution programs, which seek to educate homeowners, policymakers, planners and the general public about all of the ways in which we can make life better for animals and for ourselves through careful and more caring approaches to human-wildlife interaction. This is the best way to ensure the safety and the future of bears in our midst.
It is important to recognize that bear country doesn’t just include the peripheries and surrounding forests of a community. It includes those spaces within our communities where bears can find attractive denning and foraging opportunities. And that’s our shared challenge.
Bears are normally wary of people, but if bears are rewarded with easy access to food near human dwellings, they may come back for more. Each time this happens, they can become more tolerant of human presence—and this food conditioning can lead to problematic behaviors.
Bears who become tolerant of human activity and seek food rewards near human dwellings are often labeled as “nuisance bears.” These are most often females with cubs or subadult males—young bears who have just left their mother’s protection.
But conflicts between people and bears can usually be avoided with simple practices on the part of those who live in close proximity to bears:
- Make trash cans inaccessible. Bring them inside at night or buy a bear-resistant trash can or an enclosure for the container.
- Enclose your compost pile. Open compost piles, especially those with kitchen scraps, are an irresistible treat for bears. Burying compost won’t work because bears will easily find and dig it up.
- Recycle wisely. If you store recyclables outside, use enclosed bins, as persistent bears will break into even ruggedly built bins.
- Keep your barbecue grill clean and as free of drippings as possible. Move the grill away from your house when it is not in use, and clean it regularly with ammonia or bleach.
- Rethink your bird feeders. In the summer, birds can make do with naturally available foods. If you want to attract birds, we recommend using bird baths. If you do set up feeders, install them away from your house and out of reach from bears.
- Predator-proof your coops and beehives. For nighttime protection, keep chickens in bear-resistant coops fully enclosed with solid wood construction and heavy-gauge wire over any vents or openings. Access doors should have locks. Chicken runs, beehives and other areas can be made safe from bears with electric fencing.
Engaged communities can mitigate the issues that lead to bear conflicts by setting up bear aware programs with seasonal reminders and compliance programs. They can require bear-resistant trash cans, distribute educational flyers and train police and animal control officers in the use of techniques that can teach bears to stay away from areas where they are unwanted. Finally, they can fine people who knowingly or unknowingly feed bears.
This tragedy is larger than just one mother bear and two orphaned cubs. Unnecessary bear deaths occur across North America in areas where black bears and grizzly bears live near humans. But some communities are making progress to reduce or even eliminate conflicts with bears. Most recently, in Whitefish, Montana, for an extra $6 per month, residents will receive 95-gallon, bear-resistant containers intended to prevent both black bears and grizzly bears from accessing trash. We’ve also seen strong commitments to human-bear coexistence in communities in the Tahoe basin region in California and Nevada.
Bears are powerful animals, so all interactions with them must be taken seriously. Each year, millions of Americans encounter bears without injury. Yet, human food sources are the root cause of almost all negative human-bear interactions. It is incumbent upon us to find a way to coexist with bears if they are to persist, particularly in the face of the climate crisis, which may make bears’ natural foods scarce at times. This means adopting the bear-aware strategies we suggest here.
At the heart of our work is the desire to make this world a better place for all, including the wildlife species who share our planet. The outpouring of concern for the situation in Connecticut is encouraging. Still, Bobbi’s death is a reminder of just how far we have to go.