HARDYSTON, N.J. — The black bear that swatted an elderly man in the face last month is long gone, caught and euthanized by state wildlife officials, but the philosophical postmortem over the future of New Jersey’s largest predator continues.
For one, there’s a debate over how to even describe what happened in the 82-year-old man’s garage in West Milford, Passaic County, on July 24. He was left needing 30 stitches on his face, evidence enough to call it an “attack,” say pro-hunting groups. But was it instead an avoidable “encounter,” one that the man could have prevented by not storing food in his garage and keeping the door closed?
”When is an attack not an attack? According to Gov. Murphy, it’s when the ‘encounter’ is with a black bear,” the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, a group representing hunting, fishing, and trapping interests, wrote in a recent news release.
The victim, reached by phone last week, said he didn’t “want to get involved in that controversy.”
In New Jersey, there may be no animal more controversial than the black bear, an omnivore that typically weighs in at 400 to 500 pounds. Though black bears have been spotted in nearly every county, most live in the mountainous northern counties: Sussex, Passaic, Morris, and Warren. Estimates of black bear populations in North Jersey range from 2,500 to 3,000.
No attacks on humans had been reported this year from Jan. 1 to July 21, and it was unclear whether the state Department of Environmental Protection would classify the July 24 incident as an attack.
In 2014, a hiker was killed by a black bear in West Milford, the only fatal attack in the state.
Gov. Phil Murphy made a campaign promise to end New Jersey’s bear hunt, which began in 1958 and lasts in total for about four weeks in the fall and winter, with both bows and firearms being used. In August 2018, he signed an executive order banning the killing of black bears on the roughly 700,000 acres of state land. Hunting on private land was still allowed, and several hundred bears were killed during that season.
Just before Murphy took office in 2018, the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife issued a 12-page report stating that the “removal of hunting as a management tool will quickly allow the population to rebound to unacceptable levels.”
Sightings are up in the state this year, though the reason depends on whom you ask.
The DEP said in a statement that the increase may have something to do with the coronavirus pandemic. “This is the time of year when bears are looking for habitat, particularly younger males that have left their mothers,” the agency said. “Reports may have increased due to more people being at home seeing bears as they disperse into habitats.”
Cody McLaughlin, spokesperson for the Outdoor Alliance, said bear sightings already were going up prior to the pandemic. He said he believes the bear population in the state is “exploding.”
“This is a simple matter of math, and I don’t like being right on this,” McLaughlin said. “The bear hunt does work to reduce conflict.”
A challenge to Murphy’s ban by the Outdoor Alliance and hunting interests is scheduled for trial in September.
Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey’s chapter of the Sierra Club, said the state’s bear hunt is a “trophy hunt,” meaning hunters are looking to bag the biggest bears, not to manage populations. He said a world-record, 700-pound black bear killed last year in Morris County had never been known as a “nuisance.”
“That’s a trophy,” he said, “not a management hunt.”
Tittel also believes the pandemic is playing a role in the increased sightings as more people are cooking at home.
Mike “Mountain Mike” Bush, a hunter and a native of West Milford, drives a pickup truck adorned with hunting stickers, including one of a cartoon character urinating on the words “anti-hunting.” Last week, Bush, 51, led a reporter into a development of half-million-dollar homes in Hardyston Township, Sussex County, where black bear sightings are almost a daily occurrence.
“The problem with the anti’s is that they want a bear in every tree,” Bush said.
Armed with bear spray and a knife, Bush crept down a path of goldenrod and milkweed trampled by bears, a veritable highway where most of the raspberry bushes were picked clean. The path crossed just 20 feet behind a trampoline and playground, but the homeowner said his children have high-pitched whistles to sound an alert in case they spot a bear.
“It’s so overgrown right here that a bear could walk right past them and they’d never see it,” Bush said. “They don’t make any sound. You’ll never hear a bear.”
Bush said a large black bear that has been collared for research lives in the neighborhood. One bear, he said, killed a resident’s dog. The neighborhood recently erected bright-yellow warning signs.
Resident Artur Stencel was walking his dog, Murphy, in the neighborhood. He said his sons often see bears while riding dirt bikes and that one popped up behind him while he was weeding his front lawn. The dog acts as an alarm — “He doesn’t like bears,” Stencel said — but he also planned to get a can of bear spray.
Angie Metler, founder of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, said the key to coexistence with black bears is education, not hunting. She said her nonprofit would visit any new homeowners willing to learn how to make their houses bear-proof. She doesn’t blame the West Milford man for the incident in his garage, but believes it could have been prevented had he not stored food there.
“I don’t think it was an attack, because it was not like the bear was after him,” Metler said. “Mostly bears are fearful. If this bear wanted to kill him, he would not be here.”