OP-ED | Wildlife Returns to Connecticut . . . What Now?
A moose wandered into New Britain on Wednesday, headed down West Main Street, and ended up trying to cross busy Route 72. Conservation officers from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection were forced to shoot and kill the animal before it went onto the highway, which could have been fatal for both moose and the people in the car or cars that struck it. This sort of thing is going to become a much, much more common occurrence in Connecticut, and we need to be prepared.
Wildlife is returning to Connecticut as forests and wilderness make an astonishing comeback all over New England. A recent Boston Globe story details just how dramatic the change is. As food production shifted to the west over the last two centuries, farmland was allowed to return to forest. Then, with time, the wildlife that had been driven out, hunted to extinction, or crowded out by farms and then sprawl, began to return.
Moose sightings have gone up from an average of six per year in the 1990s to an average of more than 100 per year now. In 2012, another moose (or maybe the same one) was sighted in busy, suburban Plainville. Bears also are back in a big way. Reported sightings skyrocketed from 75 in 1995 to 3,153 in 2010. There are even a few reported sightings of wolves and mountain lions, both long thought extinct or departed from Connecticut.
Things were very different in recent memory. I can remember driving with my father on some Connecticut road somewhere, and he pointed up to the sky. “Look, a hawk!” I stared, entranced. I’d never seen one before. They were surprising, rare things all throughout my childhood. But now? I see one every day. I’ve even seen bald eagles and herons in busy urban areas.
The return of forests and wildlife, coupled with the steady creep of suburban sprawl, means we’re going to encounter wild creatures more and more. As human populations bump up against the kinds of large, sometimes dangerous animals we thought didn’t live around here, there are going to be plenty of problems. Are we really ready to deal with them?
A moose in traffic isn’t the only problem we may face. Wild turkeys have also made an incredible comeback in Connecticut, but it turns out they’re vicious, and can be a menace. Deer are everywhere, and can be a destructive pest — not to mention dangerous for motorists. Beavers started coming back to the state almost a century ago, and are often a nuisance as well. Coyotes and bobcats are more common now, and can prey upon pets. People walking in the woods have encountered bears, and sometimes the bears have attacked. The list goes on.
So what we do once encounters with wildlife stop being a once-in-a-lifetime marvel and become an everyday event — or annoyance?
One solution, and maybe the most obvious, is a more educated general public. People now go into the woods not expecting to see a bear or a bobcat; what can we do to stay safe if that happens? What should drivers do if they see a moose? Simple, everyday facts about nature that people in wilder parts of the country know will go a long way.
Another solution is allowing more hunting and trapping. Deer season has been expanded over the years, and now includes crossbow along with traditional bow and arrow hunting. There has been plenty of talk about a black bear lottery, as well, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we’ll see that happen sometime in the near future.
Connecticut’s never been a big hunting state on the level of, say, Pennsylvania, but there are certainly enough enthusiastic, responsible hunters in the state to help keep animal populations in check. Careful expansion of tightly regulated, sensible hunting seasons, along with outreach and education programs like the DEEP’s “Hunting and Fishing Appreciation Day” this Saturday at the Sessions Woods Wildlife Management Area in Burlington, are the right way to go.
Lastly, we need to be sure we continue to take the state’s changing environment and wildlife into account when allowing development in our towns. If the forest where a black bear is living is felled to make way for houses, for instance, where do we expect the bear to go? Preserving open space and being smart about development are both necessary.
We’ve been given a rare second chance to do right by our wildlife populations. We need to find ways for them to thrive, and ways for us to live with them.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.