Jan 08

Have You Ever Talked To A Black Bear?

By GSWA Volunteer, Jim Northrop

black bear

Black Bear Cub. Credit: National News and Pictures

I am a GSWA volunteer. Last summer we had an early evening meeting. It was hot and sticky — dusk had come as the meeting adjourned. As I walked out of the GSWA building toward my car, I noticed a large black object up the hill near the woods. O.M.G. — it was a large black bear sniffing her way toward our garbage cans. I remembered that the night before, we had been guests here at a GSWA volunteer appreciation party. Pizza was the main culinary attraction, and discarded pizza boxes (holding a few bits of uneaten pizza crust) would have smelled good even to me!

I froze, and the bear cautiously came closer. I know that black bears are fast runners, even though they are the largest, wild, land mammal in New Jersey — in fact, I am told they can overtake a running deer when they want to. I did not want to give the bear any cause for attacking me. I stood frozen and still.

A few steps later the bear stopped, looked at me and said, “I smell pizza. Can we share?”

By this time I was the only volunteer around — the others had gone home. I wished that someone else was there to assure me that the heat had not made me crazy. Could this really be a talking bear?!!

Then I heard the bear speak again.

“I have two cubs with me, and my job is to teach them how to live off the land. They know about berries and small succulent plants, but they have never heard of pizza. I’m going to call them over. Please do not spoil their lesson by yelling at them or throwing something at us.”

I did not have to be told twice. I knew that a mother black bear will get very violent, if necessary, to protect her young cubs. So, I just stood there quietly and watched. Oh, how I wished I had brought a camera!

Ten minutes later, they had shredded the pizza boxes and feasted on every last crust they could find. The mother bear looked over at me and saw that I was not a threat, so she began a conversation.

“I’m new to these parts,” she said. “I grew up in Sussex County, but recently there’s been so much residential development there. A lot of new bears have moved in, too. I had to find a new home. I had to go where the people had not yet thought to guard their garbage from curious, hungry animals like me. So, here I am, and I am loving it!”

Remembering that a black bear’s choice of home range is largely determined by the types and availability of food, I wondered what she liked to eat when no pizza crusts were handy.

“Well,” she said, “most of the time I eat plants — especially their berries, fruits and nuts —- but, I also like insects. You know, finding an ant hill is really a treat.”

“I also like mice and other small mammals, and delicacies like the white-tailed deer carcass I found the other day.” I do not come across those tasty bits very often, but I am not choosy — any fresh roadkill will do just fine. But, I am getting a bit spoiled from so much human food. You humans call it “garbage,” but I think it is great!”

“My cubs have begun to associate garbage with people — not that they actually want to eat people, but if they smell humans nearby they assume that some tasty ‘garbage’ is nearby.”

“Sometimes this creates a problem. When my cubs approach, people become frightened. They think the cubs will try to make them their meal. You see, sometimes bears are completely misunderstood.”

I felt sorry for the bear and her cubs. After all, humans also get into trouble by misunderstanding the intentions of others.

“I am sorry you can’t be spared this grief,” I said, “but you should know that there are conservationists around who want to end the misunderstanding between people and bears. They get other people to stop leaving their food and garbage around outside as if it were ‘bait.’ In fact, in New Jersey, people can be punished with a fine for feeding the bears.”

“That’s very kind,” she said with a smile, “except that educating people will mean no more pizza scraps for us bears!”

“My favorite food really is not pizza, anyway. I love finding a good-sized beehive. You see, my fur is bee-proof, and the occasional sting on the nose is well worth the sweet honey I usually find inside the hive.”

About then, I noticed a very large shadow moving toward us from the woods. The black bear noticed it too, and told me that it was her mate coming from another part of the woods. He was coming to investigate all the commotion.

As her mate approached, my new friend said, “I have to go. My mate gets very upset when we do not save some good food for him, and my cubs and I have licked this area clean!”

As she turned to leave, I waved her a good bye.

Driving home that night, I remembered a report I had seen from the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP). It had targeted that probably about 500 bears will be killed in 2015 by New Jersey hunters. But that rate, the report said, is below what state biologists say is needed to keep the black bear population stable — and to stop black bears from expanding their range throughout the state.

Some have criticized the annual N.J. black bear hunt as a “trophy hunt” that has little to do with effective wildlife management. They argue that while the bear hunt leads to some loss in bear population, it does not do anything to deal with “nuisance bears.” They say New Jersey should deal with the protection of bear habitats, the securing of garbage dumps from hungry predators, and educating people in bear country to properly handle garbage and food scraps so they don’t become ‘bait’ for bears.

But, garbage management only goes so far to address the issue, says the NJDEP. Bear country has expanded, and black bears have been sighted in every county of the state, but their greatest density lies in northwestern parts of New Jersey.

The NJDEP estimates that there are as many as three bears per square mile in certain northwestern portions of the state. Other states with black bear populations have densities in the range of one bear per three square miles, says the NJDEP. The presence of black bears in New Jersey is now a given, and people must change some habits if we are going to live in peace with them.

As I drove into my home driveway, it occurred to me that the pizza hospitality I had allowed for my black bear friend might have been a mistake in the long run!