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The Real Bears of New Jersey
Even in the dense suburbs, chance encounters with wildlife can happen when least expected.

My morning commute from the Jersey suburbs is often fraught with confusion and delay. But this morning was the first time a black bear was to blame.

There it was, in the small park just across the street from my train station, perched nervously in the lower branches of a large tree. It looked like it was seriously considering a leap onto the police SUV parked below, which is why officers were banging loudly with fallen branches and a hammer, hoping to keep the bear off the ground until wildlife officials could arrive. The park was ringed with yellow caution tape, and I joined the gaggle of New York City commuters quickly snapping pictures with their smart phones, until the approaching train whistle lured us across the street to the boarding platform.

Black bear

My neighborhood is actually home to a wide variety of wildlife. We’ve had to brake for wild turkeys crossing our street, watched a raccoon sack a neighbor’s garbage can from my son’s bedroom window, and doused our garden with cayenne pepper to keep a fat groundhog from devouring the vegetables (it especially loves celery). Just yesterday on the walk home from the train, my neighbors mentioned reports of a coyote in town.

Seeing a bear on the morning commute felt like a special treat, though, beyond even the usual pleasures afforded by backyard wildlife. Black bears are actually common in New Jersey. The state known for turnpikes and “The Sopranos” has more black bears per square mile than anywhere in North America, according to state wildlife officials, and bears have been spotted in all 21 counties. Their population has been growing and spreading across the state from the mostly rural northwest since the 1980s (a decade after the bear population reached its nadir of about 50 due to overhunting). Especially this time of year, when bears are active and looking for food, reports of them wandering into populated areas and being captured by wildlife officials are fairly routine.

They can still draw a crowd, though, as I found this morning. And a growing bear population means growing opportunities for conflict with humans. There has already been controversy about the state’s newly sanctioned bear hunts of the past few years (since Chris Christie took officehis predecessor was opposed). Wildlife officials say they are necessary for reducing the bear population by roughly half. That goal outrages animal rights activists, who have challenged the hunts in courtunsuccessfully so far.

What’s clear, though, is that in a state with the highest population density of both bears and humans in the country, encounters between the two species are bound to happen. Bears eat a lotthey grow from eight ounces at birth up to somewhere around 600 pounds five or so years laterand with the New Jersey suburbs continually encroaching into their territory, they’re naturally going to seek out new food sources, like restaurant Dumpsters and garbage cans. Normally they’re scared of humans and pretty good at hiding, experts say, so they often live out of sight on the edges of residential neighborhoods. The bear that disturbed my morning commute was likely inexperienced, or just unlucky.

Black bearI only got to watch it in the tree for about 30 seconds before running across the street to catch my train. Which means I missed the exciting conclusionwildlife officials arrived and shot a tranquilizer dart into the bear’s paw, and it fell about 12 feet out of the tree into a stretched net held by firefighters. A wildlife official told the local news the bear was 18 months old and weighed 158 pounds“old enough to be booted out by mom and … looking for his own place,” which officials will attempt to provide him on public forestland in the western part of the state.

Now I wish I had stuck around and caught a later train. My instinct told me not to be late for work, but even in a state where bear encounters are becoming more common, I should have recognized this for the special opportunity it wasand kept my smart phone at the ready.

Images: Selma Avdicevic and Dana Hawkins-Simons/Baristanet

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image of Scott Dodd
Scott Dodd is the editorial director of NRDC, which publishes OnEarth. He was a newspaper reporter for 12 years, contributing to coverage of Hurricane Katrina that won a Pulitzer Prize, and has written for Scientific American, Slate, and other publications. CJR praised his expansion of as an outlet for "bang-up investigative journalism." He also teaches at Columbia University. MORE STORIES ➔
Comments (11)
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Those that trophy hunt like to say that we have many more bears in NJ than we actually do. I live in bear country in northwest NJ and have seen one bear in the past two years. If bears are being spotted in 21 counties in NJ that is because the DFW traps and relocates them there to open more hunting areas as well as to make it "seem" that we are overrun with them! The sad news is that those that enjoy killing wildlife will always finds reasons to do so. It is not well known to many residents that deer and black bear are "baited" (fed ) most if not all of the year by hunters and the DFW to assure the hunters plenty to kill for their entertainment.
people can live with the bears. they do not have to kill them. the nj div fish & game council is composed of 11 member, all of whom come from hunting wildlife killing backgrounds, so they have always wanted to sell licenses to kill bears. the fact is the number of hunters in nj has diminished to be less than 1/2 of one percent of our population and yet millions of all species of animals are killed in nj. this council will not let even one person who does not believe in hunting sit on this council. this horrible set up was mandated in 1946 and we still live, in 2013, by l946 standards. why cant people who are compassionate about animals have any voice at all. they take our dollars and we have no voice to save any of them, beaver, foxes, deer, quail. just about every species that tries to live in nj is hunted for the license money. death of animals for govt money. its horrible.
Scott: Nice article on our bears, without overtones of "kill em all". Most New Jersey humans forget: they were here first. I was glad you called meetings between humans and bears encounters" rather than "conflicts". Even with the increased number of bears (if we believe NJDEP's statistics), there are amazingly few encounters and very, very few conflicts. The big gov't turnout at your train station was unnecessary. Given some room, it was almost certain that young mr. bear would have moved on quietly and unobtrusively-- if we only let him. I do agree, however, that the govt must be there for human safety. One of the few times police thought they NEEDED to shoot was a very young cub near Rte 3 in Clifton. Of course, they probably could have picked up that little critter by the scruff of his neck and carried him away to safety AND LIFE. Please don't blame the crowds and traffic delays on the bear. The blame belongs on gawking humans. Perhaps if we humans interacted with OUR bears more frequently, these occasions would become less of a surprise to all. Ultimately, we should ask ourselves: "If the density is really as high as touted by NJDEP (responsible for hunting income) we still need to know if the bear population is exceeding the carrying capacity?" But we'll never know unless we stop chasing and killing them. Maybe bear population would stabilize at an acceptable level.
It is important for people to understand that the bears in New Jersey are black bears, not grizzly bears, and 40 years of research have proven that black bears can be added to the list of animals that are now known to be primarily gentle and timid. Although there are no reports of a treed bear coming down and hurting anyone, such bears are often shot in the name of public safety rather than waiting for the neighborhood to calm down at night so the bear can come down and head for solitude. People are 380 times more likely to be killed by lightning and 97,000 times more likely to be murdered by another human being than to be killed by a black bear. Upon occasion, a black bear may feel threatened and begin a blustery bluff charge. However, rest assured that the bear will stop short. If people yell, stomp on the ground, wave their arms and back away slowly, the bear will make a fast retreat. Air horns, supersoaker water guns, rocks and pepper spray are also very effective tools for chasing away bears. So are pop-open umbrellas. Taking action to reinstill the bears’ natural fear of humans is called “aversive conditioning.” Homeowners and businesses in New Jersey can stop attracting bears into their communities with improperly contained garbage and pet food. This would definitely curb the bear-human interaction of a few curious bears that visit homes because people do not bother to secure their garbage properly. But few people bother to secure garbage and pet food, even though securing garbage will stop visiting bears. Bear habitat has been segmented by many, many homes, so it is not unusual to see bears trying to follow their old paths to sources of water, etc. They are not moving around to harm people. And please understand that a mother black bear protects her cubs by sending them up the nearest tree if she is concerned about their safety. And, she usually leaves the area until she feels it is safe for them to climb down and she will return and call them down. They will wait in the tree for their mother. Please learn to coexist peacefully with our wild neighbors.
I totally agree with Wildlife Lover !
I write a pro bono column for the Capital Times for LIVING wildlife. It is called Madravenspeak since the raven was the shamanic messenger and wildlife is in real trouble with human overpopulation and greed. On top of that, man's unending desire to trophy and recreationally kill our wildlife is a disaster on top of the habitat loss, fragmentation, and "busy - ness" of humans to distracted to care that state agencies are funded primarily by killing licenses ( not general public funds ) and so are just a murder business. That is what naturalist John Muir called hunting over a hundred years ago when he asked Teddy Roosevelt, "When are you going to get over this infantile need to kill animals?" We need major reform at both the state level - to move state wildlife agencies to general public funding tied to major reform on the boards governing policy, always and forever dominated by killing obsessed old outdated white guys. We need major reform at the federal level, getting rid of Wildlife "Services" which uses taxpayer millions to destroy cougars, and grizzlies, and coyotes and wolves and all wildlife to facilitate cheap rancher grazing of our public lands with cattle who are desertifying our treasured lands, and emptying ancient aquifers. We need major reform of Pittman-Robertson, which is 60% funded by gun collectors and home protection NOT hunters - yet all of the money goes to facilitate yet more killing. With 6 of the 8 species of bears endangered on the planet by trophy serial killing, and the Asian glut of medicines that use animal body parts, and with wildlife populations worldwide plummeted 35% in the past 35 years, we are pushing the extinction of large mammals faster than they can sustain. Tigers, rhinos, lions, bears, elephants, cougars, jaguars, lynx, all of the big cats, and wolverines and now WOLVES AGAIN are being extinguished in this minority killing frenzied special interest control of state agencies whose mission statements claim they "protect" wildlife, for all citizens. NOT. It is dangerous that these agencies are rotton to the core. It is dangerous to keep killing at all. We should follow Ecuador, Bolivia and Costa Rica into a policy of respect for all beings in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and ALL BEINGS. The first RIGHT of all beings is to exist - then not to be caged or harmed by man and to live in their natural habitat and contribute their natural role in the magical web of life that sustains all life, including arrogant, violent humans. It is time for the general public, asleep the past 100 years to wake up to the reality of suffering of our wildlife and stop the killing.
Thank You, Madravenspeak!!! Everything you said is SO TRUE!!! And, YES! We need Major reform of Pittman-Robertson!!!
Where is this overpopulation? I live in bear country West Milford it's Aug 8th and I have not seen a bear.
Scott, you gotta read John McPhee's "A Textbook Place for Bears," which can be found in his Table of Contents.
I'm decently read on McPhee, but I admit I've missed that one, Elizabeth. Will have to look it up. Thanks!
Great article. Bears and suburbia are not a good mix for families nor for the bears. Sure it's exciting to see a bear in the neighborhood until he breaks into your house to see what you have in the fridge and trashes the place. The over population of bears is what is causing this. The population of black bears has tripled in a short span of time. There are more bears than humans in this country. It's a disaster waiting to happen for both people and the bears, who will ultimately be destroyed in the end. I find the animal rights activists protest of more hunts childish and silly at best. If you really wanted to protect the bears, you'd be promoting these hunts to keep the population in check.