June 21, 2013

When It Comes to Bears in Princeton Residents Urged to Live and Let Live

There’s a good chance that the young adult male black bear that has been seen roaming the Princeton area might be here to stay. “The fact that he’s been here for over seven days is significant,” says Princeton Animal Control Officer Mark Johnson.

Last year, Mr. Johnson reports, five bears were spotted around Princeton. All of them were migrating. They were here for no more that 24 hours and then moved on, thought to be young males ‘kicked out’ by their mothers and on the road looking for a place of their own.

According to Mr. Johnson and Michelle Smith of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife Management, the bear that was seen around Princeton recently and pictured in last week’s Town Topics taking a nap in a tree on Terhune and Mount Lucas streets, is thought to be the same bear that was roaming around Hopewell last year. If he remains in the area in the coming weeks, says Mr. Johnson, he is most likely here to stay.

Asked whether the woods around Princeton could sustain him, Mr. -Johnson said, yes, absolutely, noting that the bear seems to be gravitating toward two wooded areas: the Woodfield Reservation and the Puritan/Stony Brook Tract.

On Monday night, Mr. Johnson answered questions from local residents who had come to hear a presentation on bears and bear safety at Witherspoon Hall. The Princeton Police Department received several reports of bear sightings during the past two weeks. Some 16 people turned up for the talk.

Ms. Smith spoke for over an hour on the history of black bears in New Jersey, their decline and recovery, their biology and habits, and the research that her organization carries out each year. Flyers and information brochures and DVDs were available for public information and more is available from the website: www.njfishandwildlife.com/bearfacts.

Since the 1980s the State’s black bear population has been increasing and expanding southward and eastward from forested northwestern New Jersey. Ms. Smith said that the fact that they are thriving speaks to the health of the state. New Jersey’s bears are having a lot of cubs, typically three but five or six have been seen. There are now confirmed bear sightings in all 21 of New Jersey’s counties. Ms. Smith described the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s approach to managing New Jersey’s black bear population as fostering coexistence between people and bears.

She described male black bears, called boars, as growing to around 400 pounds, although 825 pounds is the state record. Females generally weigh in at 200 pounds, but can get up to as much as 400 pounds. They need to consume some 20,000 calories per day during seven months of the year. For five months during the winter they go into a state or torpor and remain in a den. Black bears, said Ms. Smith, are not true hibernators, they can wake up from their torpor at any time. They have a keen sense of smell that extends up to two miles and are not picky eaters. They love skunk cabbage, nuts and carrion, and will be drawn to garbage.

The key things to know, she said, are to keep your distance, remain calm, avoid eye contact, make a lot of noise and make yourself look as large as possible, back slowly away but never run away as this will excite the bear’s chase response. Black bear attacks are extremely rare. If a black bear does attack, fight back. And never play dead, as is the suggested response to a grizzly attack. Black bears eat carrion.

Although there have been incidents where humans have been attacked by black bears (almost always due to inappropriate behavior on the part of humans trying to feed them, said Mr. Smith), the most common problem for New Jersey residents is bears getting into garbage; attracted by odors. In dense bear areas, people are encouraged to secure their garbage in certified bear-resistant garbage cans (they are tested on grizzlies in Montana) and put out trash only on the day of pick-up. Cleaning out your garbage can with bleach is also recommended.

The idea of a bear taking up permanent residence in the area doesn’t sit well with all residents. Charles Balestri of Shadybrook Drive, came to ask about the safety of his three-year-old granddaughter. Mr. Balestri’s son and daughter-in-law have just purchased a home on Stuart Road in the neighborhood close to where this bear was spotted recently. The backyard of the Stuart property is heavily wooded, just the sort of terrain that would provide food and shelter to a black bear. Mr. Balestri expressed concern that residents are being asked to live in harmony with a large, wild and omnivorous animal that could potentially attack a small child.

Black bears tend to be wary of people but if you get too close a bear may respond with a series of huffs or by snapping its jaws and swatting the ground. If it  stands on its hind legs or moves closer, it may be trying to get a better view or detect scents in the air. It is usually not a threatening behavior. Black bears will sometimes “bluff charge” when cornered. The advice here is to stand your ground, avoid direct eye contact, then slowly back away and do not run.

Families who live in areas frequented by black bears should have a “Bear Plan” in place for children, with an escape route and planned use of whistles and air horns.

Another resident questioned whether having a bear in the area would conflict with Princeton’s efforts to “go green” through Sustainable Princeton’s composting initiative. The recommendation is to avoid placing meat or any sweet foods in compost bins or compost piles.

Princeton Health Officer David A. Henry was on hand to comment. Mr. Henry lives in Jackson in the Pine Barrens and said that one of the best things you can do is educate your children about bears. “Be mindful, be watchful. Learn to live with wildlife and to minimize interactions.”

Mr. Johnson spoke of the possibility of having a state representative talk to children in Princeton’s schools.

Report black bear damage or nuisance behavior to your local police department and/or the state Department of Environmental Protection’s 24-hour, toll-free hotline at 1-877-WARN DEP (1-877-927-6337). And remember: NEVER FEED BEARS. Anyone who feeds bears could face a penalty of up to $1,000 for each offense.