Lawsuit Claims Officials Turned a Bear into a Spy

A Connecticut couple alleges the state put a camera on a bear with the intention of illegally filming their property, and has filed an injunction to get the photographic evidence destroyed. 

Mark and Carol Brault say the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection put a camera on a bear the agency knew frequents the couple’s 117-acre forested property in Hartland.

The couple’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Hartford, alleges a violation of their their 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search of their property.

DEEP is responsible for monitoring bear activity in the state and has increasingly been called in to remove problem animals.

DEEP officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

“We’re not asking for money. We’re not asking for attorney fees. We’re just asking for an injunction to make them stop,” said New Haven attorney John R. Williams, who is representing Mark Brault. 

It’s the latest salvo in a years-long dispute between Brault and the town of Hartland, which claims Brault had been illegally feeding bears.

According to a request for injunction filed last month, a bear bearing an identifying tag and a camera entered the Brault’s property earlier in May. It’s a bear Williams said Mark Brault had seen before. 

“He noticed that the bear now had not just an ear tag but a collar, and so he got on his camera and zoomed in on the bear, and not only did it have a collar, but the collar had a camera on it,” Williams said.

“That’s a bear that the DEEP knows is a frequenter of the property. So what does that say to me? That says to me that they’re engaging in a warrantless search of his property.”

“It’s like sending in a robot, I guess, with a camera on and you can’t do that without getting a warrant,” Williams said.

When asked if he believed DEEP had intentionally affixed the camera to that specific bear knowing it would enter the Braults’ property, Williams said yes. 

“What they do have on some of the bears with collars is GPS devices, so that they can track where they are. I understand that that’s part of wildlife management,” he said.

“But never, never, never were there cameras, and it’s a little difficult to understand the point of a camera. What would that do?”

Brault had previously been accused in a lawsuit filed by the town of Hartland of feeding bears in violation of town ordinances. Brault is a part-owner of Nature Havens, which asked guests to pay a fee for the chance of seeing wildlife, including bears.

During several public hearings in 2020, local residents claimed that Brault and others were feeding wildlife in order to attract them to his property, a claim Brault denied.  

Brault said in a 2020 statement to Fox 61 that, “It is unfortunate that this issue is being motivated by a few neighbors of Nature Havens, who don’t understand the facts.”

Hartland later claimed in court that Brault and others associated with Nature Havens had illegally fed bear cubs, though Brault denied the allegation. A cease and desist order was filed, which the town said Brault was caught on tape violating. 

“Specifically, on or about Oct. 12, 2020, Mark Brault was recorded on a Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection camera feeding two bear cubs on the property,” the lawsuit says

According to Williams, Nature Havens was never an operational business and while Brault was seen interacting with bears, he did not feed them. 

“They claimed that they saw Mr. Brault engaging in activity that they think is the feeding of bears,” Williams said. “During that trial, there was a lot of evidence that Mr. Brault introduced showing various particular bears on his property and how they were not afraid of him but at no time did he feed them.”

Williams said the Hartland town ordinance prohibiting feeding of wildlife was passed following the public hearings, which allowed the town’s lawsuit to proceed. The state legislature is considering a bill this year that would prohibit the feeding of black bears statewide. 

Hartland public offices are closed Fridays. First Selectman Magi Winslow did not respond immediately to a message requesting comment. DEEP did not reply to an email requesting comment. 

A court filing claims Hartland and DEEP have video evidence of Brault feeding the bears. 

“The evidence presented at trial more than meets the plaintiff’s burden of proving that it is more likely than not that Mr. Brault and Nature Havens intentionally fed bears,” the filing said.

“The plaintiff presented direct evidence of intentional bear feeding – Mr. Brault being caught on video feeding bears — and a mountain of circumstantial evidence from which the only reasonable inference that can be drawn is that Mr. Brault and Nature Havens fed bears.”

Williams said the evidence shows otherwise, and that other residents have routinely fed bears.

“There’s a lot of video showing that some of his neighbors feed bears,” he said. 

All arguments in that case have been made, and a ruling is expected soon.

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