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.
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 office—his 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 court—unsuccessfully 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 lot—they grow from eight ounces at birth up to somewhere around 600 pounds five or so years later—and 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.
I 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 conclusion—wildlife 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 was—and kept my smart phone at the ready.
Like this article? Donate to NRDC to support OnEarth's groundbreaking nonprofit journalism.