Earlier this month, Sara Grant was inside her home in Sherman, Connecticut, a small town near the New York border. Her 2-year-old was upstairs. Her newborn daughter was in her arms.
Suddenly, she saw her 4-year-old son, Gavin, running up the driveway, sobbing. A bear was close by.
“I screamed louder than I had ever screamed before,” she said.
Grant’s golden retriever, Jake, leaped forward and chased the bear off the property, driving it into the woods.
“He got multiple treats, an ice cream cone,” Grant, a 33-year-old stay-at-home parent, recalled. “He definitely got extra belly rubs that night.”
Human-bear interactions have increased dramatically in Connecticut in recent years, as the state’s population of black bears has multiplied and their geographic range has expanded. This year alone, bears in Avon crashed a parade and broke into a bakery. Elsewhere in the state, they have even invaded houses.
The danger was underscored this week in nearby Westchester County, New York, when a bear attacked a 7-year-old boy who was playing in his yard. (On Wednesday, health officials said the bear tested negative for rabies.)
Worried about public safety, Gov. Ned Lamont recently signed into law a measure that allows residents to shoot and kill bears under certain circumstances: if a person “reasonably believes” a bear could seriously hurt a person or a pet, or if a bear is trying to enter a building with humans inside.
It also prohibits intentionally feeding potentially dangerous animals, like bears, on private property.
Connecticut is the only state in the Northeast with a significant bear population but no bear hunting season. The new law, essentially a stand-your-ground law for bear encounters, was a modest step that has drawn critics from all sides.
Those who advocated instead for a bear hunt say the new law did not go far enough. They argue that bears must be taught to fear humans for their own protection, and that dead bears deter live bears from populated areas.
“It’s about altering the behavior of our bears and how they perceive humans,” said Jason Hawley, the leading bear biologist at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, adding, “Bears don’t have a negative association with humans. In fact, I’d argue that they have a positive association with humans.”
Others say the law allowing people to kill bears in self-defense is dangerous, and nearly unenforceable. They are skeptical that law enforcement officials will be able to determine if people truly felt threatened before shooting.
They argue that residents should instead be taught to bear-proof their garbage cans, to put out bird feeders only in winter and to meticulously clean their barbecue grills.
Remove the buffet, the thinking goes, and discourage the customers.
“Hunting bears is unsafe, it’s not necessary and most importantly, it’s not going to reduce interactions between people and bears,” said Annie Hornish, the Connecticut director for the Humane Society of the United States, which is part of the CT Coalition to Protect Bears.
Connecticut is hardly an outlier. Bear sightings have risen in parts of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maryland, North Carolina, California and beyond, about 50 years after hunting restrictions and restoration efforts took effect, reviving devastated populations nationwide.
Bears have also expanded their geographic ranges. In many states, they are roaming closer and closer to cities.
As a result, many states are now debating how best to manage bears. And bear hunts are returning to states that had previously prohibited them, including in New Jersey, which re-legalized a limited cull last fall. Gov. Phil Murphy had suspended the hunt on state property in 2018, but then bear sightings and aggressive encounters increased.
In the suburbs across Connecticut, bears who venture close to people’s homes are largely looking for food, wildlife experts say.
They fish leftovers out of bins, which humans helpfully leave in a row outside on collection days. Some tip over cans, teaching their babies to forage. Others prefer bird feeders.
“Bears tend to go for the easy food,” said Deborah Clark, the animal control officer in Simsbury, a town of about 24,000 people, which has recorded 517 bear sightings so far this year.
But a few bears have also attacked humans. Last month, a bear bit a 65-year-old man in Litchfield. (The bear ran away.) Last fall, one mauled a 10-year-old in Morris. (That bear was killed.)
It was this spring, after a bear bit a 74-year-old woman in Avon, that Lamont signed the law allowing people to shoot and kill bears when they are in danger.
“It started out as a nuisance, but this is no longer a nuisance,” said state Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, a Democrat who represents Avon and other areas.
“We have anthropomorphized them, and they are not Yogi,” she said. “That’s the problem.”
Connecticut is home to 1,000 to 1,200 bears, according to the state environmental agency, and last year, bear home entries reached a new high: 67 reported invasions and dozens more attempts.
By comparison, Maine — where bear hunting starts in August and continues through November — has more than 30,000 bears, but incidents of bears breaking into homes are rare.
Some Connecticut residents are simply annoyed by the situation.
“I used to see them once a year, if even that,” said Phil Kayan, 35, who lives in Canton. “Now, I feel like we see them once a week, if not more.”
Bears play on Kayan’s patio furniture, and he picks up after their trash feasts, strewn across his lawn.
“They’re more of a nuisance than anything,” he said.
If you see a bear, scientists recommend, make a loud noise to let it know you are there, and keep your distance. If it starts coming toward you, wave your arms, shout and back away. (Do not run. The bear is faster.) Bear spray is an effective deterrent, although it can be unpleasant for humans, too.
In Simsbury, a group of friends called “The Ladies of the Lane” give each other a heads-up via text message every time they see a bear. But it’s becoming futile, said Laura Ferraro, 33. There are just so many notifications coming in.
She said she has tried all the normal bear-scare tactics: Air horns, car horns, even banging pots and pans.
Firecrackers are the only things that scare them off. She said her family keeps a stash near the backyard. When they see a bear, they light one and throw it onto the patio.
“You just have to be bear aware at all times,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.