The recent case of a bear cub in Litchfield is drawing attention to a little-known policy in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) regarding orphaned cubs.
“It’s a death sentence for them,” said Annie Hornish, state director for the Connecticut branch of the Humane Society of the United States.
The policy classifies cubs younger than six months and less than 60 pounds as Category IV, the most serious level of concern. Bears that exhibit aggression toward humans fall into the same category. The recommended response is euthanasia.
“We feel that most people in Connecticut don't realize that DEEP is doing this, and they would find that very objectionable,” Hornish said.
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“It's one option that's on the table, but it's an option that we don't usually use unless the club is injured,” DEEP Wildlife Division Director Jenny Dickson said.
When NBC Connecticut asked Dickson how many times DEEP has euthanized cubs designated Category IV, she responded, “two or three,” and said it hasn’t happened in years.
More and more cubs are seen in our state each spring. They’ve been documented making themselves at home in pools, climbing trees and in one case, even crashing a birthday party.
Rep. Melissa Osborne (D- Simsbury) said the pictures and videos tell the story of how the bear population in our state has changed over the last several years.
“You did not use to see a mom with four cubs. You saw one, maybe two cubs,” she said. “These moms are so well fed now because they've been feeding off our garbage at our backyard barbecues, that they're very fertile.”
According to the 2022 State of the Bears report, female bears, also known as sows, with offspring were seen in more than 90 Connecticut towns last year, compared to fewer than 50 towns in 2015.
“Most of the issues that come to me or to the caucus, are usually about cubs, orphaned cubs,” said Rep. David Michel (D- Stamford), co-chair of the legislature’s Animal Advocacy Caucus.
Michel and Hornish were among those who intervened in April when they learned of a six-pound cub in Litchfield that had been in a tree for days with no sign of its mother. Fearing DEEP would euthanize the cub, they circulated the euthanasia policy on social media.
DEEP ultimately decided to send the cub to a bear sanctuary in New York state, echoing a scenario that played out last year in Newtown. In that case, two orphaned cubs were sent to the Kilham Bear Center in New Hampshire. They weighed 11 and 13 pounds when they arrived.
When NBC Connecticut visited the center last July, Ben Kilham said the cubs would not have survived on their own, and criticized DEEP’s initial response.
“The policy just reflects a lack of knowledge about bear behavior and survival of cubs in the wild. It's the assumption that they're going to live,” he said.
Kilham regularly works with wildlife agencies across New England, but the Newtown cubs are the first Connecticut has ever brought him to rehab. They are almost ready to be released back into the wild.
Dickson said public pressure indirectly played a role in DEEP’s decision to send the cubs away in the Newtown and Litchfield cases.
“We grew increasingly concerned that there were enough people that were gathering around the site where the cub was… that were trying to capture the cub on their own, that it was no longer safe for that cub to be out in the wild,” she said.
Dickson said DEEP has not ruled out the possibility of a bear sanctuary here in Connecticut, but that it requires special skills and special facilities.
For the time being, she said DEEP will continue evaluating orphaned cubs on a case-by-case basis. She also said the agency needs to do a better job of communicating with the public in situations like these.