Newtown bear shooting was ruled justified. So are most bear killings, 10 years of records show

Photo of Trevor Ballantyne
A bear tagged as #217 was known as Bobbi to many residents. An off-duty Ridgefield police officer fatally shot the black bear in May. She was survived by her two cubs.

A bear tagged as #217 was known as Bobbi to many residents. An off-duty Ridgefield police officer fatally shot the black bear in May. She was survived by her two cubs.

Contributed Photo / contributed

The killing of a black bear by an off-duty Connecticut police officer in May raised questions among many Newtown residents and wildlife advocates angry over a perceived lack of justice in the case, especially when environmental police officers determined the shooting to be justified.

But documents obtained through a public records request showing all recorded bear shooting investigations in Connecticut over the past decade help to demonstrate under what circumstances and complications wildlife police officers with the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection might decide to apply for an arrest warrant in an individual bear shooting case.

They also reveal the challenges and intricacies for the law enforcement officers involved in making that decision, providing context for the push from state lawmakers, advocacy groups, and other officials who say more clarity is needed in the wildlife laws guiding the prosecution of bear shootings.

The most recent high-profile example is the Newtown incident, where an off-duty Ridgefield officer, Lawrence Clarke, shot and killed a bear on his property. The case caused an uproar in the community, with residents and advocates concerned for her two bear cubs and calling for the officer to be held accountable. But officials found "insufficient evidence" to charge Clarke, saying he feared for his and his family's safety.

In a statement, David Applegate, who became the state’s attorney in Danbury after that case, noted he could not comment specifically on any incident that occurred outside his jurisdiction but explained how the unique facts of any case pose challenges to investigators.

“Unlike the charge of murder, for which there is a codified self-defense statute, there is no statute that expressly explains when a person is justified in killing a bear,” Applegate said. “Case law suggests that the defense of justification would be available to a person who kills a bear under the appropriate set of circumstances, but this is an area where we would benefit greatly from legislative clarity.”

Between 2013 and July 2022, records obtained from DEEP show agency personnel responded to or were notified about 40 reported bear shooting incidents, but information is only available for 32 of those cases. Records for the other eight incidents are not available under the state's erasure statute because charges brought against the individuals were later dropped, or they were found innocent, according to a DEEP spokesperson. The records show that arrests in bear shootings are uncommon and convictions are even rarer. 

In addition to the shooting incidents, DEEP reported 347 bears either killed by a vehicle or euthanized by a law enforcement officer between 2017 and 2021. A spokesperson said data for the number of deceased or euthanized bears in 2022 would only be available at the end of the year when the agency reports the data to the federal government.

No arrests in most cases

A review of the 32 bear shooting investigations where documentation is available shows they mostly occurred in the northwestern section of the state. Out of those incident reports available under the state's public record laws, Environmental Conservation Police officers made arrests in four of the cases. In another, a district court judge later denied the arrest warrant.  In two other incidents, EnCon officers issued written warnings.

The arrests resulted in two individuals paying a $500 fine after being found guilty of the "illegal taking of a black bear." 

Another open case involves charges against a 38-year-old Torrington resident scheduled to appear in court at the end of September facing charges of an illegal taking of a bear, in addition to violating state laws regulating how bait is used when hunting deer.

According to an application for an arrest warrant in the case, officers responded Sept. 17, 2020 to “a report of a deer hunter shooting a bear.” 

According to the affidavit, the investigating officer viewed a video taken by the accused individual that showed a “bluff charge” by the bear led to him using a crossbow to shoot the animal. The officer wrote he then shared the video with a DEEP wildlife biologist who became “concerned after reviewing the video as she believes that the bear was not acting in a predatory nature, but was rather acting in a way more consistent with a bear protecting a food source or young cubs.”

Court filings show cases against three individuals in two of those cases remain open as of Sept. 26. 

On Sept. 22, 2020, a Thomaston man was arrested after his neighbor captured him shooting a bear on a home security camera. According to the report, the deceased bear was laying in a driveway of a home, “with 2 cubs nearby.” The man said his dog had been outside before he shot the bear. 

The report notes the dog had no visible injuries, in addition to noting the video the officer reviewed showed “…the bear was not acting in a threatening manner at the time that it was shot. There was also no dog barking in the video which is in contradiction to (the accussed’s) verbal statement," according to the report. The man would plead guilty to the charge of “illegally tak(ing) of a moose or bear” in April 2021. 

A month prior before the shooting of the bear in Newtown this year, a Winchester man received a written warning for illegally taking a bear after he shot at one that had approached an enclosure where he kept goats — two of which had gone missing 10 days earlier.

“The bear did not on this evening physically attack any livestock, nor did (the individual) state that it had,” the officer wrote in the incident report.

In another case, a district court judge declined an arrest warrant for a Watertown resident who reported May 30, 2020 that he had shot a female bear, “…reported to be deceased and her two cubs were still alive in a tree,” after he felt it was threatening his dogs, reads the case’s incident report.

When the officer asked the homeowner to provide a written statement, he said: “That’s okay, I figured this might be coming, I would do it again, I would do anything to protect those dogs.”

'No criminal aspect'

Despite the cases where arrests were made or warnings issued, the majority of bear-incident reports obtained from DEEP show investigators either found "no criminal aspect" in their investigation of a bear shooting, or closed the case based on a lack of information, with officers regularly finding the killing of a bear justified based on a person's actions taken in self-defense or in an effort to protect an individual's property, livestock, or domesticated animals. 

In September 2017, officers filed another report finding "no criminal aspect" in the shooting of a bear that broke into a Sharon couple's home, "went through their kitchen looking for food, and ate the food on their 3 season enclosed porch," according to the officer's incident report. "She then stated that her husband found the bear in the house and shot it with a shotgun and it ran off."

When the officer spoke to the husband the following day, he "noted that while (he) was speaking of the incident, he was visibly shaken. He stated that he and his wife had not slept the whole night in fear the bear was going to come back into the house," according to the report.

An incident report from 2014 resulted in a “no criminal aspect” finding after a Granby man reportedly said he was protecting his dog from attack and ultimately “found to be justified in killing the bear,” according to the investigating officer’s report.

“In Connecticut, individuals can legally kill a bear that poses an immediate threat to human safety and to protect live stock and other domestic animals from immediate harm,”  the officer wrote.

Legal gray area

After releasing its investigation into the Newtown incident in July, DEEP directly contradicted the premise that legal bear killings are allowed under certain circumstances, writing: “bears are protected in Connecticut; there is no right to kill a bear," adding: “There is also no articulated right to defend yourself or livestock against bears. When a bear is killed, Environmental Conservation Police investigate. It is the State’s Attorney’s duty to determine if a chargeable criminal offense has occurred.”

A DEEP spokesperson stated last week, the agency's wildlife enforcement officers "do not have a specific policy" that guides an investigation of a bear shooting, "each case is evaluated on the basis of its own individual circumstances. Those factors are evaluated and if probable cause exists, law enforcement typically make an arrest then. If more investigation is needed or the suspect is not on scene, and we find probable cause then we will work with the State's Attorney's office to ask for a warrant."

Rep. Mitchell Bolinsky, R-Newtown, noted there would be no legislative action until the General Assembly convenes in January of next year but said members of the state's "Animal Rights Caucus, its leaders and advocates are resolute in clarifying and updating applicable laws regarding (the) killing of bears and other wildlife that is not a clear, present danger to humans and specific property."

Bolinsky added, "there is also concern about unsafe discharge of firearms in proximity to human habitation or in violation of established local laws."

State Rep. Steve Harding, R-Brookfield, pointed to efforts earlier this year by lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow individuals to legally kill a bear only in cases where they received specific approval from DEEP after demonstrating a bear had caused "unreasonable" damage to crops, agricultural, or livestock damage and that they had taken prior actions, such as installing electric fencing, before requesting permission to shoot the animal.

Katherine Throckmorton, a Connecticut attorney who lends her time in support of animal welfare, described the proposed bill as needing "a lot more work by incorporating definitions and procedure/policy," pointing specifically to elements of the law outlining "unreasonable" damage to be caused by the bear and "requiring protections such as electric fencing and the use of humane methods" before any permission to kill the animal is given.

Also important, Throckmorton added, the proposed law "didn’t even attempt to address the issue of finding a bear in your kitchen or what circumstances might justify killing a bear in the face of immediate harm  Those are the issues that seem most pressing and are still hanging out there unresolved to the detriment of the public and Connecticut’s bears."

Harding said he recognized the complexity around creating a bill to address bear shootings and hoped legislators would continue efforts to pass a law that would bring clarity to the issue. 

"We need to figure out the custom and policy that DEEP is currently operating under, what statutory authority they are utilizing to operate under this practice and work with all parties involved in crafting a policy which will make it clear what would be appropriate or not be appropriate in these circumstances," he said in a statement.