On Wednesday, July 16, a ranger with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP’s) Division of Parks and Forestry was forced to kill a black bear in Stokes State Forest, Sussex County. The ranger was on a routine patrol when he encountered a female black bear and two cubs feeding from a cooler at a campsite near the Flatbrook River. The family of campers had already retreated to their car when the ranger arrived and chased the three bears out of the campsite and across the stream. Upon approaching the water to ensure that the bears had left the vicinity, the ranger was charged by the adult female who ran out from a nearby area of heavy brush. As the animal charged within 2 to 3 feet, the ranger fired two shots mortally wounding the animal. An ensuing investigation conducted by the Division’s Bureau of Law Enforcement confirmed the ranger’s account, who under the circumstances, had no choice but to shoot the charging animal.
“This unfortunate incident could have been avoided,” said Director Bob McDowell of the DEP’s Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. “Whether intentional or not, this bear was getting food from people. An autopsy performed by a Division wildlife pathologist revealed that its stomach contents included a butter wrapper and marshmallows. This bear may have already begun to associate people with food and unfortunately was teaching its cubs to do the same.”
“Campers are urged to follow the State Park Service guidelines established regarding black bears and food storage,” said Division of Parks and Forestry Director Greg Marshall. “Campers in ‘bear country’ need to take certain precautions regarding food storage and personal conduct such as securing all food and garbage in air tight containers and most importantly refrain from feeding the bears.”
The Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife has been aggressively working with local communities to educate residents on black bears. Every police department has been notified about the Division’s Black Bear Policy and how to handle bear encounters. In addition, the Division sends out regular news releases urging north Jersey residents to avoid feeding black bears and to “bear proof” their surroundings during the summer months and has sent wildlife biologists to many of the schools throughout northern New Jersey to discuss black bears and wildlife management.
“Though individuals may mean well by providing hand-outs, establishing artificial feeding sources and the association of humans with food inevitably can create problems for both the bears and the people involved,” said McDowell. “Bears have the potential to become problem animals when people feed them, either intentionally or not. A bear that becomes accustomed to finding food in someone’s yard will return to that yard, and the yards of neighbors until it gradually loses its natural instinct to avoid people. It is critical that residents take every precaution to ‘bear proof’ their surroundings.”
A stable food source is very attractive to black bears and other forms of wildlife who, once a set feeding pattern has been established, will keep coming back to a site regularly in search of food. That can mean damage or potential harm to homeowners and their property as well as that of other families in the community. Since black bears have the distinction of eating almost anything, scavenging from garbage cans, bird feeders and campsites can become a common occurrence once an area has been established as a “reliable” food source.
According to McDowell, the number of complaints received by the division regarding black bears usually increases during the summer breeding season when the bears’ activity rates are higher. Under such circumstances, proper sanitation techniques have proven to be the most effective method of preventing black bear damage.
Garbage should be stored in airtight containers and placed in a secure area. Containers should not be stored in a wooden shed or against garage or basement doors and should be washed with a disinfectant at least once a week to remove odors.
The outside feeding of dogs and cats should be done during daylight hours and all uneaten food and scraps, as well as food bowls, should be removed immediately after feeding.
Those who feed wild birds are urged to modify their feeding practices in accordance with the following guidelines. As bird seed and suet are highly attractive to black bears, feeders should be suspended from a free hanging wire during daylight hours only, so that the bottom of the feeder is at least eight feet off the ground.
Should you see a black bear, do not approach it under any circumstances. Sightings may be reported to the division’s Wildlife Research Section at 908-735-7040. Individuals needing assistance in controlling bear damage may contact the division’s Wildlife Control Unit at 908-735-8793.
New Jersey’s growing black bear population is mostly concentrated in Sussex, Warren, western Morris and northern Passaic counties and will continue to increase over the next 5 to 10 years.
“Residents in these areas need to realize that bears are a natural part of the forest environment,” McDowell said. “In a state as densely populated as our own with development continuing to encroach upon their habitat, bears are never far from residential areas and people. However, they usually avoid or only pass through such populated areas in search of their natural woodland food sources. Therefore, it is essential that they not have their regular travel and behavior patterns altered by intentional or unintentional feeding.”
Black bears are currently protected in New Jersey and it is illegal to harm them in any way.