N.J.'s black bears migrating farther south

A black bear climbed a tree in Newton, N.J., in 2006.
A black bear climbed a tree in Newton, N.J., in 2006. (File photo.)
Posted: July 17, 2012

VINELAND, N.J. - Until a 230-pound cub bounded across Landis Avenue - a sight so odd that onlookers at first thought it was a huge dog - New Jersey had no proof that American black bears had migrated so far south.

A spate of bear sightings over the last few months have stretched south from Princeton to East Windsor to Winslow Township, down into Gloucester County.

Unconfirmed reports also placed bears in wildlife management areas in Atlantic and Cape May Counties.

All 21 of the Garden State's counties have had sightings during the last 10 years. Last December, a hunter shot a record-sized 829-pounder in the woods near a North Jersey high school.

A few unverified reports in Vineland had come in during that last week in June when the cub climbed 35 feet up a backyard tree and was captured in a relatively urban part of this central Cumberland County city of 60,000. Bears reportedly had been roaming near a trailer park on the other side of town, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

State biologists had theorized for some time that bears eventually would range far south from their heavily forested homes in northwestern New Jersey. As they fashioned a plan to tranquilize and remove the bear from Tara Batson's sycamore on Howard Street - a tricky operation around a spiky fence and an air-conditioning unit - they saw the migration had begun.

"I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing . . . at least I hope so," said Batson, a social worker for the state, recalling her surprise when a neighbor called her at work June 29 to tell her a bear - yes, a bear - was nestled in one of her treetops.

"It's logical that as the bear population expands, its range would move south, and that's what has been happening for the last 10 years," said Kelcey Burguess, principal wildlife biologist for the bear control unit of DEP's Division of Fish and Wildlife. "But this was as far south as we've been called to help with relocating a bear."

In the unit's research area, a roughly 900-square-mile range concentrated mostly in Sussex and Warren Counties, the state estimates as many as 3,400 bears - about three per square mile, said Burguess, whose unit has been studying the state's black bears since 1980.

It is unclear how many more bears are spread elsewhere, he said.

When the unit finds a bear in an area inhabited by humans - such as the one taken out of Batson's backyard - it is weighed and blood drawn so the animal's physiology can be studied. Before releasing the bear, officials tattoo the inside of its cheek and attach an ear tag so that wildlife managers can identify it should it again come in contact with humans.

If a bear is healthy, it is relocated to an undisclosed spot so that the public will not disturb or harm it. The location is usually in a nearby wildlife management area, officials said.

But in the nation's most densely populated state, that location is sometimes relatively close to a suburb - and its children and pets. The cycle of contact begins when a bear emerges from its den to find food. And food is often easily obtained from homeowners who leave trash cans within easy reach.

"Given all these factors, especially in a state with eight million people, interaction between bears and humans seems almost inevitable," Burguess said.

American black bears are native to New Jersey. Before European settlement, they lived in forests throughout the state. Settlers indiscriminately killed them for food and to protect their crops and livestock as the increasing human population deforested the region to build homes and towns. The bear population had declined sharply by the late 1800s.

In 1953, the state Fish and Game Council decided to afford bears some protection and classified them as a game species, which ended the indiscriminate killing but allowed limited hunting. When state biologists determined in the early 1970s that the bear population had declined so significantly that the species was near extinction in New Jersey, legal bear hunting ceased.

Black bears then made a remarkable comeback, Burguess said, expanding their range south and east, as some agricultural land reverted to mature forest.

"They really can den anywhere there is ground cover and forest," Burguess said.

In December 2003, amid protests from animal-rights groups and as part of a state bear management plan, New Jersey initiated its first bear hunt in 33 years. In a designated area in the northern part of the state, 323 bears were killed. Another hunt was held in 2005 and 298 bears were killed.

In 2006, the Corzine administration declined to authorize the bear hunt, and the practice was not reinstated until 2010 under Gov. Christie, and 592 bears were brought in. In 2011, the number was 469, according to a DEP spokesman.

A six-day hunt is planned this year, beginning the first Saturday in December, a spokesman said.

Groups including the Humane Society of the United States contend that hunting does not reduce conflicts between bears and humans but can exacerbate the problem in areas with limited habitat, providing only short-term population reduction, according to a society spokeswoman.

On its website, the society says that no one has been killed by a bear in the state's recorded history and that the animals pose an "extraordinarily small threat" to humans.

"New Jersey's hunt would be, and always has been, an exercise in obtaining heads and hides for trophy hunters," the humane society's statement says.

Bears have long provided wonderment for New Jersey residents - even in South Jersey - said Marston Mischlich, of Mullica Township, who teaches a course in regional history at Atlantic Cape Community College.

Route 552, also known as Bears Head Road, stretches between Cumberland County and Atlantic County and cuts through an area of Hamilton Township, known colloquially as "Bears Head."

"I've wondered about that name for so long but have never been able to find out why that area is called that," Mischlich said. "Bears likely once roamed that area. Maybe that name is a remnant of that history."

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore," at www.philly.com/downashore.

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