Capital Beat: State’s handling of nuisance bears lacks consistency

Monitor staff
Sunday, November 26, 2017

The spectacle was tailor-made for headlines. Three bears and their mother, bumbling through a suburban neighborhood, drawing fawning spectators and viral smartphone videos. A Fish and Game department advocating for euthanasia, warning of the danger posed by their conditioning.

A groundswell of support for the animals; an online petition drawing in thousands. An impassioned governor reassuring the public that no animal would be killed on his watch.

But months after Gov. Chris Sununu did save the bears – collaborating with the department on a successful effort to trap and relocate them in the north – the long term policy effects of the public saga are unclear.

Officials with New Hampshire Fish and Game say the May incident in Hanover was an exception to the department’s practice, in which bears deemed too accustomed to humans are euthanized.

In fact, officials killed a black bear in Bartlett in May – and another in Randolph in June, according to Andrew Timmins, the department’s bear biologist.

Timmins said the deaths were brought about by the same standard it’s used for decades, and that nothing has changed since Hanover. He was not available to answer follow up questions on the circumstances of the shootings.

Sununu, meanwhile, says he’s asked the department to look over the standard it employs.

“Fish & Game makes every effort to dissuade bears from bad behavior and educate the public on methods to avoid attracting bears,” he said in a statement Friday. “I have encouraged the department to review their policies and am hopeful that they will evaluate each situation on a case by case basis, keeping the decision to harm an animal as the absolute last resort in cases where there is imminent risk to public safety.”

For Timmins, who has a say in each bear-related incident whether the department opts for euthanasia, the policy is airtight as is. Fish and Game officials don’t have an animosity to bears, but when it comes to clear domestication, lines must be drawn, he said. Presently, any bear that repeatedly enters a yard or living quarters of a home is a bear that can’t be responsibly returned to the wild.

“When you’re dealing with a population of 6,100 bears in the state, there are a few individual bears that simply have to be destroyed,” he said, using the department’s preferred parlance for lethal action. “It’s not the bears’ fault; we as a society caused the bears to get there.”

Not destroying the “bad apples” in the bear population, Timmins added, would proliferate the problem, leading to more necessary animal deaths down the line.

It’s a position widely backed up by bear biologists. Still, a call for the targeted destruction of bears doesn’t exactly win over hearts and minds.

Sununu, in his statement, has left discretion for the department, with an obvious preference for life.

But Sen. Jeff Woodburn – a representative of Pittsburg, New Hampshire’s northernmost town and the chosen drop-off spot for the Hanover bears – argued last week the governor should never have overturned the advice of the department in Hanover. And he took issue with what he said was an inconsistent approach in Hanover, dictated more by public relations than biological policy.

“Where do we go? Where is the policy?” said the Minority Leader, who had been vocally opposed to the relocation at the time, said. “Is the policy ‘I’m concerned about a particular bear or bears’? Do those bears get spared? When it’s an area with bears that don’t get the same attention, do they get euthanized?”

Woodburn’s preferred solution: to follow the biologists’ advice. In the North Country, he said, residents are attuned to the need to take lethal action against animals that have become too desensitized, to head off the risk down the road.

And the bear population remains in healthy numbers, Woodburn added. The state already began its bear hunting season in September; last year, he pointed out, a record 898 bears were killed by licensed residents.

As for the national petitions for the North Country ramblers in Bartlett and Randolph? The heart-melting video clips – the breathless news coverage?

Some bears just aren’t born for the limelight.

The final stretch

At last, the finish line calls. After a 3-2 Executive Council vote to confirm House Speaker Shawn Jasper as Commissioner of Agriculture, the race for his replacement is formally on, with a Republican party caucus to take place Tuesday and a full session vote Thursday.

Asked after the vote whether he would endorse one of the seven Republicans running for Speaker, Sununu demurred.

“I pride myself on being able to work with anyone,” he told reporters.

But looming over an ambitious 2018 legislative calendar is a chasmic unknown with implications for the race: whether the House will vote to continue renew the state’s Medicaid expansion program, as it has since 2014. The last vote, in 2016, proved dramatically divisive, with Jasper himself casting the tie-breaking vote to push it through.

Sununu has been supportive of the expansion program in the past, which New Hampshire also uses to fund opioid treatment programs and disability services in schools.

But many House Republicans argue that the expansion has saddled insurers with higher-cost patients and is responsible for next year’s spike in premiums within the Obamacare individual market. And in a field spanning every inch of the political spectrum, only one Republican candidate says they support doing it: Deputy Speaker Gene Chandler, who specified he would not support any general funds going to the ten percent state share.

Sununu, though, said the Medicaid question doesn’t affect who he thinks should get the Speaker’s gavel. A vocal opponent of the Affordable Care Act, the governor characterizes Medicaid expansion as a flawed tool – fixing it requires pursuing ways to make it flexible, like a work requirement waiver the state sent off to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services last month. Pressed on his plans, he said he would negotiate with the House and whoever wins next week’s election, and deal with a failed renewal vote if and when it comes.

“I’m not thinking past the legislative session right now,” he said. “My goal is to find a solution that can potentially work for New Hampshire and that we can get passed.”

With a restive faction of his party eager not to repeat the Medicaid votes of the past, the governor – and the House – may eventually be looking to a Plan B.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)