By Steve Grant
On October,18, 2011, a female bear that makes the area around Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks her home territory abruptly ambled northwest well into Massachusetts, not returning until December 1, just in time to enter her winter den.
Biologists with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection know this because the bear – they call her airport bear – was trapped and fitted with a GPS collar able to monitor by satellite practically her every movement every day with a high degree of accuracy.
For a female bear to wander that distance was most unusual. Females typically remain in their territory, about 15 square miles, year-round.
What the biologists discovered was that the acorn crop in the Windsor Locks area was poor that year, and acorns are a hugely important fall food source for bears. With food scarce, airport bear scooted about 50 miles to a place near the Becket, Ma., town line where the acorns or beech nuts were abundant.
Only in the past three years has the agency begun to place GPS collars on some bears, and the information those collars yield is proving invaluable in determining the movement and behavior of bears in Connecticut.
“We never would have known that otherwise,” Jason E. Hawley, a wildlife biologist with the agency, said of airport bear’s travels. “Our GPS collars are opening up a whole new world for us.”
Already, the GPS has documented that in early spring Connecticut bears congregate in wetland areas, searching for skunk cabbage, one of the earliest food sources available to bears. In the fall, they’ll be found in stands of hardwoods, eating acorns and nuts.
In another instance, a female with a home range in western Hartland bolted from her territory and walked all the way to a cornfield near Route 185 in Simsbury, undoubtedly to find food, the biologists believe. She stayed in Simsbury for about a month, then suddenly headed back to Hartland, swimming across the Barkhamsted Reservoir on her way, immediately hopping into her winter den once she arrived back home.
The GPS data also is pinpointing the exact boundaries and total size of a bear’s home range, because the system provides the biologists with about 17 or 18 reports each day on an individual bear’s location. Take all those reports over a period of months, plot them as dots on a map, and a bear’s home territory could not be clearer. Using earlier technology radio collars, far less reliable and precise, the biologists estimated a typical female’s home range at about 7 square miles. Now with the GPS data they realize it is twice that.
The GPS monitoring is turning up other useful information as well. For example, because airport bear’s home range is centered in the busy area around the airport, the agency twice has been forced to trap and move her when she came into too close contact with people and traffic. Both times they moved her – she is 7 years old and 245 pounds as of last March – to a more remote area in Granby, two towns away.
Later, Hawley said, they learned from their GPS data that airport bear immediately left Granby after she was released and hustled back to the airport area within 6 hours.
That experience only reinforced a policy the agency already had adopted – rarely moving a bear more than 10 miles, even if found in a city. Paul Rego, another biologist with the agency who has worked with bears for years, calls long-distance transport of bears “a waste of gas.”
The biologists also can now often detect when property owners are intentionally feeding bears, something they strongly discourage but which is not illegal.
If multiple bears wearing GPS collars start showing up at a certain location in a certain town – they have seen this in Burlington, Granby and Barkhamsted already – they usually suspect the bears are being fed, often with bird seed handouts. Rego said the biologists explain to the property owners that feeding bears is not a good idea because the bears can become too familiar with humans and human surroundings, the likelihood of a bear getting hit by a car increases, and it can artificially alter what a bear considers his or her home territory.
About 25 bears have now been fitted with the GPS collars. Many other bears have been tagged, 40 of them this year alone. Even the tags can be helpful when people see a bear and report the tag number to the agency.
For example, the agency has a surprisingly detailed log of the movements of a female born in Simsbury and carrying the tag 5-0, just from reports from people. She spends most of her time now in Farmington, often seen between Tunxis Community College and Rattlesnake Mountain, part of the Metacomet Ridge.
The Farmington bear, born in winter, 2009, and weighing 217 pounds as of May this year, has a fondness for bird seed, repeatedly seen raiding bird feeders in Farmington, New Britain and Plainville over the past two years. Just this year 5-0 was captured and fitted with a GPS collar, so her whereabouts over the seasons will now be even better known.
The bear population in Connecticut has grown rapidly over the past 20 years, and the bears, once confined mostly to the more rural parts of Hartford and Litchfield counties, are spreading south and east, often into populous suburbs.
Males, especially young males, can move about long distances. A bear trapped in downtown Danbury this spring was released in a rural area not far from the city. Not long after it was identified in Leeds, Ma., near Amherst, and soon after was spotted again in Roxbury, in Litchfield County.
“As the population grows, there are going to be bear intrusions into more and more suburban and urban settings,” Rego said. “We receive many complaints about bears. We spend a lot of resources dealing with complaints.”
Is the agency considering a hunting season for bears?
“There has been talk about it,” Rego said. “We see it as a very workable option to address the growing bear population and the growing number of conflicts. It will not be without controversy.”
Any hunting proposal that involved a fee, such as a special bear hunting permit or a bear-hunting lottery system, would require legislative approval.
A truly reliable estimate of the bear population in Connecticut is not easy to come by, Rego said, but “it may be in the 500 range.” That there are now about 30 road-killed bears a year in the state suggests there are plenty of them.
Tracy A. G. Rittenhouse, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Connecticut, is trying produce a more precise estimate of the bear population in a cutting edge research technique.
She and colleagues have created almost 150 “hair corrals” in northwest Connecticut, where barb wire is strung around perhaps 5 or 6 trees and a scent lure is placed in the middle. Attracted to the scent, the bears go over or under the barbed wire, which typically snags some fur.
Fur samples are analyzed and the DNA used to identify individual bears. If at the end of study, they are only collecting hair from bears already counted, than they know most of the bears have been counted. If at the end of the study, most of the hair is from bears not previously counted, then that information is still useful for estimating the number of bears.
Gathering samples over an extended time should produce a far more accurate assessment of how many individual bears live in northwest Connecticut, where they are well established, and how many bears populate certain types of habitat, Rittenhouse said. That will give biologists a sense of what to expect elsewhere in the state as the population continues to increase.
The UConn researchers will collect more hair samples next summer, followed by months of genetic analysis in a laboratory and then additional time on statistical analysis before a new population estimate is available.
This story first appeared in The Hartford Courant in 2013.