Calls to update Connecticut bear laws, as authorized officer in shooting case

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It is illegal to hunt bears in Connecticut, but you can shoot one if it is “chasing or worrying” your chickens.

The law was written at a time when agriculture prevailed, but it would be legal vindication for the off-duty police sergeant who killed a bear with his Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in Newtown in May.

That’s how David Applegate, the state’s attorney for the Danbury Judicial District, explained the law Friday to lawmakers, citizens and animal advocates who want him to reopen the case against Lawrence Clarke.

Clarke, a Ridgefield Police Department employee, was not charged with shooting the mother bear who, according to a police incident report, took about three of the 14 chickens in her coop.

The shooting, which attracted media attention, orphaned the bear’s tiny twin cubs, who climbed an 80ft tree after the shooting. The brothers were rescued and transported to Kilham Bear Center in New Hampshire.

The group that invited Applegate to Friday’s virtual chat wanted him to explain why Clarke has not been charged because it is illegal to kill a bear in Connecticut.

That’s because state law 22-358 says owners can destroy an animal that poses a threat to people or attacks livestock, and they can’t be held criminally or civilly liable for doing so, said Applegate.

“If the bear chased the chickens, he had the right to kill the bear, depending on the statute. This is the law by which I am bound,” Applegate said. “I’m not telling you that I like it or that it’s fair. I tell you what the defense would be if I made an arrest.

When a bear is killed, the Environmental Conservation Police, nicknamed EnCon – the enforcement arm of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection – investigates.

The state’s attorney then decides if there is enough evidence to charge someone with a criminal offense.

In Clarke’s case, EnCon agents determined that the killing was justified. In July, DEEP officials released a statement saying Clarke “had numerous encounters with the same bear over several days which caused him to fear for the safety of his family, himself and his livestock.” .

But Applegate, a former senior Bridgeport prosecutor who became Danbury’s law enforcement chief in July, said he disagreed with what happened on May 12 in Newtown.

“I’m not mad that [EnCon] put their legal conclusion in their report and then asked us to make a decision,” Applegate said. “If you’re going to call me to see if a shooting was warranted, don’t write down that you think it was warranted.”

EnCon is a small unit of 35 law enforcement officers who enforce fish and game laws, boating safety laws, and manage state parks, forests, and wildlife.

“They don’t investigate crime scenes like other agencies do. We don’t work with them a lot,” said Applegate, who served as a prosecutor for 17 years, including a stint in the Stamford district. “This year has been tragic for drownings at Candlewood Lake, and they are quite rare.”

All the more reason to question the management of bear shooting, animal advocates say.

Annie Hornish, Connecticut State Director of the Humane Society of the United States, questioned Clarke’s motivation for collecting six of the seven casings near the body of the bear, known to Newtown residents as of Bobbi, before the EnCon agents arrived. Hornish asked if this could be considered evidence tampering.

“That bothers me,” Applegate replied. “What worries me is that there is a level of speculation. I don’t know how that would present to a jury or a judge, because I don’t really know why he picked up the shell casings.”

Regina Milano, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and member of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, questioned why EnCon officers disposed of the bear’s body before examining the stomach contents to determine if she had eaten the chickens, since Clarke had told investigators that he had also been chasing the foxes from the chicken coop.

“With the lack of certainty as to the credibility of the officer who fired, and some acknowledgment that the case was not handled as it could have been, shouldn’t to reinvestigate?” Milan asked.

DEEP had photographic evidence that chickens had been killed, justifying the shooting under the law, Applegate said.

“It’s about whether the bear was chasing or worrying the chickens, and there’s a lot of evidence that she was,” he said.

Another licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Deborah Galle, asked about Clarke’s responsibility to protect his chickens, which he said were sometimes allowed to roam freely.

“It would be responsible to do that; it would create a safer environment for his family and neighbors,” Applegate said. “But the law places no burden on him to protect his chickens.”

Katherine Throckmorton, an attorney who supports the Connecticut Coalition to Protect Bears, said she believes the law only applies to attacks by dogs and other pets, not wild animals, and that the the ban on killing bears was maintained.

Dave Ackert, a Newtown resident and founder of the Newtown Action Alliance, fears that Clarke used an AR-15 to fire bullets into a residential area.

“The way the law has been applied in this case, can we expect members of the public to now be quick to pull out a gun when they see a bear?” Ackert asked. “People now have access to a closet full of guns, and gun enthusiasts are different from farmers.”

The law reflects days gone by, Applegate said.

“Our laws go back to a time when we reacted to bears differently than how we react today. Back then, farmers had a bigger voice, maybe the only voice,” Applegate said. There are gaps in the law. The legislature should address this. This will happen much more as the bear population continues to move through Fairfield and New Haven counties. We may need ordinances about how chickens are cared for, to help people live peacefully among bears.

DEEP spokesman Will Healey said Friday the department is continuing its investigation, conducted with the Newtown Police Department and Danbury State’s Attorney who preceded Applegate.

EnCon officers “are highly trained, have extensive experience handling many types of wildlife investigations, and have handled many similar cases,” Healey said. “Staff have not been an issue in the investigation of this incident.”

The department believes Clarke’s actions “were reasonable and explained in the investigation,” Healey said, and the state’s attorney’s office “found nothing … that would result in the filing of charges.”

Due to the increase in human-bear conflict, “greater legislative clarity is needed,” he said.

State Representative David Michel of Stamford, co-chair of the Legislature Animal Rights Caucus, said it’s time to improve the law.

“I don’t think it’s good that this case sets a precedent,” Michel said.

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