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Speaker Tells How to ‘Bear’ with Wildlife

By James Lomuscio

With props that included three-inch bear claws and a jar of bear dung, a wildlife expert told a Westport audience Thursday night they need to be “bear aware” as black bear sightings are occurring with increasing frequency in Connecticut.
WestportNow.com Image
Sheila O’Neill (l), co-president of the Friends of Sherwood Island State Park, introduces wildlife expert Felcia Ortner at a Nature Center lecture at the park on Thursday night. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com

“Bears are generally non-aggressive animals,” wildlife expert Felcia Ortner told about 30 persons gathered at Sherwood Island State Park’s Nature Center. “They need to be respected, not feared. Most of the time they will avoid humans, except if they have food.”

In addition to the bear claws and dung, she brought along rubber castings of bear feet, a fluffy bear skin, and a bear skull as she kept the audience riveted with her 90-minute lecture and slide presentation “The Bear Reality: Connecticut’s Black Bears.”

A state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) certified Master Wildlife Conservationist, Ortner has been making presentations about bears around the region that highlight myths, misconceptions and potential risks about the animals whose presence she has traced to the 1800s.

“I’ve been studying bears for over 25 years,” said Ortner. “They became a passion of mine at a very early age.”

The talk was the first of six nature lectures being sponsored by the Friends of Sherwood Island State Park this summer.

She said food is at the heart of black bear sightings statewide over the past month, most resulting in ransacked garbage pails, destroyed bird feeders and toppled grills.

The reason? Bears, whose sense of smell is “seven times better than blood hounds,” she said, always seek out food sources.

Regionally, the the most recent sighting was Tuesday morning in Redding. A bear marauding on Route 107 caused police to advise administrators at the John Read Middle School and the Redding Elementary School to keep students inside until it was safe.

Ortner, a docent at the Connecticut Beardley Zoo in Bridgeport, thinks it was an overreaction.

Since 1900, there have been only 62 killings of humans by black bears, making the risk “one out of one million,” she said.

On Monday, a bear that had traveled from New Jersey to Naugatuck had to be hit with a tranquilizer dart by DEP workers after being spotted along a city avenue.

On June 3, a black bear killed a cocker spaniel in Avon. On May 30, another black bear killed two pigs at a Winchester farm.

Ever the bear advocate, Ortner said that in the dog killing, a bag of dog food had been left outside the home. A mother bear and her cubs arrived to eat it, and when the cocker spaniel barked at the bears, the mother bear attacked, she said.

Historically, she noted that during state’s agricultural heyday in the 1800s, black bears had been hunted to extinction, the last one shot in 1840 in the town of Goshen. But as the state’s farms returned to forests, black bears began to make a comeback, she said.

By the 1980s there were sightings in Connecticut’s northwest corner. To date there have been almost 2,000 bear sightings statewide, she said, estimating Connecticut’s black bear population at about 500.

Males bears can weigh as much as 400 pounds, females 200 pounds, Ortner said.

She stressed that campers should take precautions to keep any food, food wrappers, “even the clothes they wore when cooking,” in separate sealed containers, not their tents.WestportNow.com Image
One of the bear images shown to the Sherwood Island State Park audience on Thursday night. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com

Hikers can carry air horns to scare them away, even pepper spray, she said. If you should spy a bear on a walk through the woods, Ortner says “increase your distance.”

“You often hear that if you see a bear you should just keep your eyes down and back away,” she said. “I don’t suggest you back up because you could trip over something. The bear is not going to attack you if you turn your back.”

If one believes the bear is aggressive, Ortner suggests making loud noises “and pick up sticks and rocks.”

Ortner’s overall thesis was to be “bear aware.” For the most part that means not leaving food outside, even compost with food items in it.

“At home keep your garbage secure, sprinkle ammonia around the pails, clean grills and keep all pet food and bird seed inside,” she said. “We can live together with wildlife. Our responsibility is to come up with the management. Bears just run on instinct.”

Jim Beschle, park supervisor, said he was happy with Ortner’s presentation.

“I never saw any here, but I used to see many when I was at Housatonic Meadows State Park in the northern part of the state,” Beschle said. “I ran across a number of bears there, and I never felt threatened.”

Noting that black bears have a special fondness for sweets, jelly doughnuts in particular, Beschle said that if a bear approaches while you are eating one, “leave the doughnut and walk away.”

“I’m from Canada, and I’m used to seeing bears,” said Allyn Johnson of Fairfield. “All you had to do was to bang pots and pans, and they would go away.”

At the end of the presentation, Sheila O’Neill, Friends of Sherwood Island co-president, said the next free lecture, “Piping Plovers and Least Terns: Endangered Species,” will be held Thursday, June 30, at 6 p.m.

For further information, visit the Friends’ website at http://www.friendsofsherwoodisland.org/

One thought on “Speaker Tells How to ‘Bear’ with Wildlife

  1. We would all like to thank Jim Lomuscio for a wonderful article and taking the time to attend the lecture.  Lectures are scheduled Thursday evenings June 30 to Aug 11 at the Nature Center at 6:00pm

    Sheila O’Neill, Friends of Sherwood Island State Park, Westport, CT

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