Bears on comeback throughout the state
By Kaitlin Gurney
Inquirer Trenton Bureau
WEST MILFORD, N.J. - In this rugged northern part of the state, everyone has a bear story to tell.
There is the bear that cornered a woman in her basement. The bear that attacked a horse. And the bear with the sweet tooth that hangs around the local Dairy Queen.
Homeowners in South Jersey have been shocked this summer to find bears colonizing the area for the first time in more than 100 years.
A vision of South Jersey's future might be found here in Passaic County, or "Bear Country," where the bruins are so numerous that garbage cans are elaborate, bird feeders are rare, and sightings are a fact of life.
"If you haven't seen a bear this summer, you've been driving down the road with your eyes closed," said Bill Dougherty, a West Milford resident who says bears have become more common - or at least more visible - than deer.
After a one-year lull following the state's first hunt in more than 30 years, the state has seen a sharp spike in bear activity this summer. The state's Division of Fish and Wildlife has received 1,400 bear-related calls so far this year, compared with 900 all of last year.
Bears have now been spotted in every South Jersey county and have turned up in urban areas such as Woodbridge in Central Jersey. Some bears have turned aggressive, such as the bear that gnawed on a camper's leg in High Point State Park in Sussex County last month to get to graham crackers in the sleeping bag.
Officials estimate that in the main portion of bear country there are 2,000 to 3,000 bears.
In Fredon, Sussex County, in June, Roseann Francovilla had to dive in front of a 200-pound bear to rescue her 3-year-old son.
Such near-misses have led Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley Campbell, who has battled alternately with bear-hunt advocates and foes since taking office in 2001, to say he will likely support a December bear hunt out of concern for residents' safety. The state's Fish and Game Council already has weighed in in favor of a hunt, and Campbell is expected to announce his decision after a Sept. 21 public hearing in New Brunswick.
In West Milford, proximity to bears by no means brings unanimity. Residents are divided, police Capt. Andrew Russo reports, with half the population convinced "they're cuddly teddy bears, while the other half thinks they're a threat." Pro- and anti-hunt letters crowd the local paper a full month before Campbell is expected to make his decision.
The problem, Russo says, is the novelty of the hunt. In Pennsylvania and New York, where hunts are held each year, protest is rare.
"Each time you want to open a new game season, you're going to have a conflict between the people who want to hunt the animals and the people who want to save them," he said. "It's just magnified here because we're so close to them."
Ginny Masters, who said it was rare to see a bear in West Milford until 10 years ago, said bears have simply become too numerous - and too much of a nuisance. Bears now knock over sheds and break off bolts to get to garbage cans and have caused some nasty car accidents, she said.
"They're pretty to look at in a zoo, but pretty scary when they're in your own yard," she said, lamenting that she can no longer feed her birds for fear of attracting "Uggy," the neighborhood bear. "They're getting aggressive and costing us a lot of money. I hate to see a hunt, but I don't know what else to do."
Russ Cueman, a hunter, said he opposes a hunt after observing what happened in the 2003 bear season, when 328 animals were killed. From his house adjoining state hunting grounds, he watched as hunters took cubs and other juvenile bears from the woods.
"It was just disgusting," he said. He noted that he will hunt only animals he eats, and that bears have "strong, stringy meat."
In South Jersey, where no human interactions have yet been reported, debate is fiercest over where the state should establish "bear-free" zones, or areas off-limits to bears.
Urban areas such as Trenton or Newark are "obvious bear-free areas," but South Jersey's Pinelands represent 1.1 million acres of prime ursine habitat, said Len Wolgast, a retired Rutgers University biologist who serves as a member of the state's Fish and Game Council. Until recently, the last bear sightings in South Jersey were reported in the early 1900s.
"Bears are very territorial, and as the population has expanded, they've moved south toward unclaimed land," Wolgast said, noting that mothers and cubs, not just solitary males, now call the Pine Barrens home. "What we see in South Jersey is the nucleus of an expanding population, similar to what we saw in North Jersey 20 years ago."
Pinelands farmers who depend on blueberries and cranberries as their cash crops have lobbied the state to make the area a "bear-free zone," or to at least maintain low population levels, said Liz Thompson, a researcher with the New Jersey Farm Bureau. Farmers in Burlington and Atlantic Counties report regular bear sightings and some crop destruction, she said.
"Berries are a favored food, there's no question," Thompson said. "There's a general fear among Pinelands farmers that if they're experiencing some damage now, and the growing population isn't managed, that it will become intolerable."
Jim Sciascia with the state's Division of Fish and Wildlife said South Jersey residents unfamiliar with bears should take care to securely store their garbage, put away bird feeders, thoroughly clean grills, and never, ever feed a bear.
Francovilla, the Sussex County mother whose son had a close brush with a bear, warns that caution isn't always enough. The young male bruin approached within five feet of her as she gathered her son Sam in her arms and backed up slowly toward her house.
"I did all the right things," she said. "And yet there are still claw marks on my air conditioner."
After that experience, she has put her house on the market and is moving farther south.
But so, too, are the bears.