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June 1, 2000

For more information contact:
Patrick Carr at 908-735-8793

As the weather continues to warm and black bears become more active in the Garden State, the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife urges residents of North Jersey to "bear-proof" the areas around their residences.

"Black bears are an important part of our natural heritage," said Division Director Bob McDowell. "Unfortunately, many residents of 'bear country' who are experiencing property damage and other nuisance behaviors first-hand are regarding this growing population as a liability rather than an asset. Our goal is to inform New Jersey residents how to successfully share their space with these creatures, while maintaining their presence as a valuable part of the Garden State."

Since black bears are opportunistic feeders and will consume whatever is available, it is especially important to keep one's surroundings as temptation-free as possible. It is part of a black bear's behavior to investigate food sources such as garbage cans, leftover pet foods, bird feeders and barbecue grill drip trays. For this reason the Division recommends that "bear-proofing" should include proper storage of residential garbage in an airtight container in a secure area. Garbage containers should be washed at least once a week with a disinfectant solution to remove any odors. Outside feeding of cats and dogs should be done during daylight hours and any uneaten food should be removed immediately after feeding. Birdfeeders should be hung during daylight hours only, suspended by a free-hanging wire at least eight feet off the ground. Proper cleanup and storage of barbecue grills to minimize food odors is strongly recommended.

Division wildlife biologists stress the importance of never attracting bears with intentional feeding. Feeding bears intentionally can endanger the individuals who are feeding them as well as those who may encounter bears that have become used to people. Black bears that are fed intentionally or unintentionally (by failure to "bear-proof" surroundings) also endanger the bears themselves by encouraging them to interact negatively with people and property.

The Division's Wildlife Control Unit reported that the number of black bear complaint calls received in 1999 more than doubled from the number received during the previous year. In 1999, 1,659 bear-related damage complaint calls were logged compared to 667 in 1998. So far this year, the unit has received more than 200 bear damage complaints ranging in severity from damaging trash containers to breaking into homes to killing pets and livestock. There have been 39 reports of specific property damage (incidental damage to property caused by the bear in its attempt to get at a food source) and two dog attacks. Bears killed livestock animals in nine incidents, destroyed 13 beehive yards, and killed domestic rabbits at four residences. Black bears caused an estimated $250,000 in property damage in 1999 and are on a pace to reach the same amount in the year 2000. The increased number of negative bear/human interactions is a direct result of an increasing black bear population in northern New Jersey.

"Black bears inhabit six northern counties and are extending their range into at least five other counties," McDowell said. "Conflicts between bears and people are rising as a result of increasing bear numbers and encroachment on bear habitat by residential development."

In 1999, the Division's Wildlife Control Unit captured 58 problem bears. Black bears that caused property damage or other problems were captured and conspicuously tagged. As they were released, the bears received a treatment of pepper spray, rubber bullets and pyrotechnics designed to frighten the animals. This "aversive conditioning" has been used to modify the bears' behavior so that the negative actions will not be repeated. The Division has determined that aversive conditioning is most effective when it is performed at the complaint site so the bear associates the aversive conditioning with the negative behavior for which it was captured.

According to Division Black Bear Policy, bears that repeat negative behaviors such as home entries and large livestock kills are destroyed. The Division had to kill seven bears since 1995 under this policy, four of the six in 1999 and one this year. Two male bears weighing approximately 300 pounds each were destroyed after repeated livestock killing incidents. Three female bears were destroyed after each was involved in several home entries in spite of capture, relocation and aversive conditioning.

The estimated number of bears living in northwestern New Jersey has risen from less than 50 animals in 1980 to more than 1,000 today. It is expected that the bear population will exceed 1,500 animals over the next several years in this part of the state, which is already inhabited by more than 700,000 people.

"For residents and visitors to North Jersey, interactions are inevitable and unfortunately, conflicts will continue to become more frequent as the number of bears grows," McDowell said. "Our challenge as an agency is to manage the growing black bear population while minimizing negative impacts to people."

The Division offers the following advice for those who may encounter a black bear:

  1. Remain calm. Most bears are easily frightened into leaving.
  2. Never approach the animal and observe only from a distance. Make your presence known through clapping, talking, singing or making other sounds.
  3. Make sure the bear has an escape route.
  4. The bear may utter a series of huffs, snap (pop) its jaws and swat the ground. These are all warning signs that you are too close. Slowly back away.
  5. If a bear stands on its hind legs, it is merely trying to get a better view rather than acting in a threatening way.
  6. Black bears will sometimes "bluff charge" when cornered, threatened or attempting to obtain food. Stand your ground and slowly back away.
  7. If you encounter a bear at close range, remain standing upright, avoid direct eye contact, back up slowly and speak in a calm, assertive voice.
  8. If the bear will not leave, move to your car or house, if available. If not, the same rules as in number 7 apply.
  9. Never attempt to feed a bear. Bears learn very quickly. Black bears that associate food with people may become aggressive and dangerous. This may lead to personal injury, property damage and the need to euthanize problem animals.
  10. Report all bear damage and repeated nuisance incidents to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife at 908-735-8793.
For more information on black bears, send a self-addressed, stamped, business-sized envelope to: NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, P.O. Box 400, Trenton, NJ 08625-0400, Attention: Bear Country.