A young female black bear removed by state wildlife officials from a back yard near downtown Greenwich in early July may become the first of its kind to set up a permanent residence in Fairfield County in the past couple of centuries, according to the state's top bear biologist.
"We've been monitoring her, and there's a very good chance she'll stay," says the official, Paul Rego of the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
The distinction between an occasional wandering bear and a well-established, resident breeding population might not be immediately clear to the average person. But if bears do set up local housekeeping, "instead of an interesting news article that you might expect to read once a year or so, it would become a bear in a residential area every day," Rego says.
"Their interactions with humans would become much more frequent, and so would all the problems associated with bears, " Rego adds.
Between the early 1800s and 1980, it's believed there were no resident bears anywhere in Connecticut. Today, their population is estimated at upwards of 500 individuals, and is thought to be growing at 10 percent to 20 percent annually.
Mostly, Connecticut's bears live in the northwestern corner of the state and as of now, there is no known breeding population in Fairfield County. But bears wander, sometimes hundreds of miles, from their home range.
Mostly, these are young males, disbursing from mothers' home range, especially during late spring and summer. Females typically wander far less, and are more interested in shopping for specific real estate with an eye to family values.
The 150-pound bear captured in Greenwich July 6 was a female, taken to an undisclosed location that Rego now says was within the bounds of Fairfield County.
"A couple of sightings suggest she's still there," Rego says.
Bear sightings were reported in the town of Fairfield on June 14 and 15 and in New Canaan on July 24.
Steve Patton, who manages the 1,750-acre Devil's Den Preserve in Weston on behalf of the Nature Conservancy, believes it's only a matter of time before bears establish home ranges in his neighborhood. Devil's Den is adjacent to thousands of acres of Connecticut's Centennial Watershed State Forest and the region is prime bear habitat.
The typical home range of a black bear varies greatly. Females require from one to 15 square miles, while males need from eight to 60 square miles, according to the Minnesota-based American Bear Association. A square mile is 640 acres.
In a bee line only six miles west of Devil's Den Preserve and a stone's throw from Ridgefield, lies the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, which at 4,315 acres, is Westchester County's largest park.
"The habitat is there and the potential is high" for bears to establish a resident population, says Dan Aitchison, curator of wildlife for Westchester County Parks.
Last year for the first time New York State's wildlife officials opened a bear-hunting season in Westchester County and in all counties west of the Hudson River. The season reopens Oct. 1.
New York officials don't believe there are resident bears in Westchester. Officials believe that bears are resident in adjacent Putnam County though.
No bears were taken in Westchester during last year's inaugural season, but two were killed by hunters in Putnam County, in an area about a dozen miles from Danbury.
Aitchison, based at Ward Pound Ridge, notes that bruins have long been spotted wandering through Westchester and nearby Fairfield County, but he's never heard of local dens or cubs.
Nonetheless, "interesting things are happening these days," Aitchison says. "The wildlife is moving and the landscape is changing."
Early in the 20th Century, the region was exiting a long period of intensive agriculture that had resulted in nearly complete deforestation. In recent decades, trees have returned and deer, turkey and coyotes have become in some cases all-too-common suburban denizens.
The cast of local wildlife characters has expanded still further quite recently to include the fisher cat, a kind of large forest weasel, that has established a small population in Fairfield County, according to Rego.
While black bears provide endless fascination and aesthetic pleasure to humans, there's no denying their potential for creating property damage and other mischief.
New Jersey wildlife officials received reports of more than 50 house break-ins by hungry bruins last year alone. There were at least two such break-ins in Connecticut. And they never clean up after themselves.
Rego knows of no black bear attacks in Connecticut, fatal or otherwise. But researchers at the University of Calgary recently examined 63 fatal attacks on humans by black bears in North America in the years 1900-2009. By way of context, their North American population is currently estimated at up to 900,000.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, most of the fatal attacks occurred in remote wilderness, rather than in suburban areas where encounters with humans are most frequent. Most of the fatal attacks studied were the result of extremely rare, predatory stalking behavior on the part of the bear, rather than the more commonly observed defensive behavior, which, although potentially terrifying, is typically harmless.
Although the rate of fatal attacks rose sharply after 1960 as human population sprawled increasingly deep into bear country, the likelihood of such an attack resulting from any particular human encounter with a black bear remains very close to nil.
And yet as a practical matter, the study's lead author Stephen Herrero, writing in the Journal of Wildlife Management, noted that "people's acceptance of some probability of black bear-inflicted injury — even fatal injury — is essential for bear conservation."