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A bear-ly believable tale: Allegations of a camera-wearing spy bear, illegal feeding rile CT town

A photograph of “Bear 119” wearing a device that Hartland resident Mark Brault says is a camera is part of an injunction Brault has filed in federal court accusing state wildlife officials of wrongly surveilling his property. The state denies the allegation.
A photograph of “Bear 119” wearing a device that Hartland resident Mark Brault says is a camera is part of an injunction Brault has filed in federal court accusing state wildlife officials of wrongly surveilling his property. The state denies the allegation.

A man in northern Connecticut has a history of feeding bears on his property. And that’s caused friction with town officials – and led to legal challenges.

And now a judge has barred him from feeding bears in his hundred-acre wood.

Or 114 acres, to be exact.

It’s just the latest development in a years-long back-and-forth between Mark Brault and officials in Hartland, a small town near the Connecticut-Massachusetts border.

Officials say Brault violated local law and fed bears as part of a business charging for the chance to view and photograph the animals from a nearby “bear box.” Brault denied the allegations in court, but his attorney said this week there are no plans to appeal the judge’s decision that halts the feedings.

Court filings are filled with colorful language — touching on everything from the legality of videotaping a late-night tryst in an open field to the volume of sunflower seeds in bear scat.

And even though there’s been a ruling in the state case, bear in mind, there’s more to this story.

A federal judge is also getting involved. That’s because Brault has accused state wildlife officials of wrongly surveilling his property by placing a camera on a wild black bear called “Bear 119.”

In legal filings, Brault’s attorney, John Williams, poses a question: If a bear in the forest wears a camera, and then breaks into someone’s home, is that a violation of the 4th Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures? And if so, who is responsible?

“It is common knowledge that bears in that part of Connecticut where the plaintiffs reside often … do actually enter homes in search of food,” Williams wrote. “Thus, it is not possible to say … the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights could not be violated by the defendant’s conduct.”

In court filings, the defendant, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), “strongly denies” the allegation it was using Bear 119 for surveillance.

State judge says evidence bears witness to Brault’s ‘purposeful’ feeding of animals

But let’s bear down, for a moment, on the state case between the town of Hartland and Brault.

In a decision issued in August, a state judge weighed expert testimony, video, and GPS evidence to decide a fundamental question: Was Brault purposefully feeding bears in violation of a local town ordinance forbidding it?

“The court’s decision in this case largely boils down … to deciding whether Mr. Brault, a charming, roguish, self-taught lover of nature” was more credible, or if “the most experienced bear specialist at DEEP was more credible,” wrote Judge John Moore in his colorful decision.

Video evidence presented to the court showed bears appearing to be well accustomed to Brault.

In one video, Brault is seen hiding behind a tree and shaking an object at two young bears who “gamboled toward him like frisky puppies,” according to court documents. Other videos showed Brault in close proximity to a sleeping bear and walking closely to a bear.

Brault could not have maintained this proximity without feeding the animals, a DEEP expert testified.

Brault argued habitat improvements he made to the “unique forest” on his property helped to attract wildlife — including bears — and that the animals grew to know him over time.

“Mr. Brault has enhanced the habitat of his property for all types of wildlife including bears, fox, raccoons, and the New England Cottontail Rabbit,” his lawyer, John Williams, wrote. “Mr. Brault has constructed 25 bear dens on his property.”

“Some of the bears know Mr. Brault well; some do not,” the filing continues. “He always takes care to approach them quietly, slowly, and gently. Over time, bears become more comfortable around him.”

In addition to video evidence, DEEP officials said they found high concentrations of sunflower seeds in bear scat on Brault’s property. Additional GPS data gathered from collared bears crossing the property showed “a substantial collection of bear pings” near the “bear box” on Brault’s property, according to court documents.

The court ultimately decided in the town’s favor, with Judge Moore saying evidence presented by state wildlife officials was more credible. Moore said Brault’s feeding of bears habituated the wild animals and presented dangers to hikers and other residents.

As a result of the order, Brault must stop feeding bears, remove any edible materials on the property that were placed to attract bears, and agree to inspections, Moore said.

“The court very much enjoyed meeting Mr. Brault,” Moore wrote. “[But] to believe that Mr. Brault was not intentionally feeding bears … would require the court to believe that Mr. Brault is the Dr. Doolittle of Hartland, or at least, a bear whisperer.”

Federal judge to consider: Can a bear be a tool of state surveillance?

Meanwhile, Brault’s attorney, John Williams, says a federal court is still considering their allegations that the DEEP unlawfully searched Brault’s property by putting a camera on a black bear known to frequent the property.

The DEEP “did not have a search warrant authorizing or permitting photographic surveillance of the interior of the property of the plaintiffs,” Williams wrote in a May court filing, saying the alleged taping was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

The state denied the allegation in court documents, saying bears wander freely, and asked a federal judge to dismiss the case.

Daniel M. Salton, an attorney for the state, wrote in a filing: “As fascinating as it might be to contemplate the agency relationship between a bear and its home State,” the state is shielded from such lawsuits under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars certain legal action against government agencies. He also cited the “open fields” exception to the 4th Amendment, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled means expectations of privacy do not necessarily apply to the open area around a dwelling.

“The idea of a video camera constantly recording activities on one’s property is undoubtedly unsettling to some,” Salton wrote, citing language from prior court rulings. “Individuals might engage in any number of intimate activities on their wooded property or open field — from romantic trysts under a moonlit sky to relieving oneself … and do so under the belief that they are not being observed. But the protection of the Fourth Amendment is not predicated upon those subjective beliefs.”

As human-bear conflicts increase, new law seeks to control bear population

Brault’s attorney said his client is not looking for any money and only wants the state to stop the alleged surveillance. He said it’s reasonable to believe a bear with a camera could advance into a home or the area immediately surrounding it.

DEEP data shows the number of human-bear conflicts and home entries have been increasing, particularly in western portions of the state.

It’s not immediately clear when a decision will be released on whether to proceed with or dismiss the lawsuit in federal court, Williams said.

The DEEP declined to comment on either the state or federal case. The agency refused to answer questions from a reporter about why, or if, it puts cameras on bears.

It did say in a statement that habituated bears “lose their natural fear of humans, leading them to engage in increasingly dangerous behavior that can put them or the public at risk.”

It also cited a recently-passed law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, that will allow residents to shoot bears in certain situations and prohibits people from purposefully feeding the animals.

“The new law … which prohibits intentional feeding of potentially dangerous animals like bears, will be an important tool to help reduce bear habituation,” the agency wrote.

But as the case of Brault illustrates, the law could also lead to new legal challenges, as Connecticut’s bear population — and animal conflicts with residents — continues to grow.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.