Last September, a black bear killed a young man named Darsh Patel in West Milford’s Apshawa Preserve. This incident, which occurred a few miles from where I live in a park I enjoy hiking in, really hit home for me. My deepest condolences go out to the victim’s family and friends.
Bear hunt supporters immediately pointed to the incident as a reason to kill more bears. Predictably, anti-animal Star Ledger opinion writer, Paul Mulshine, who recently defended Hunterdon Humane Animal Shelter’s President charged with animal cruelty, demanded that New Jersey expand its bear hunt. Even worse, the Star Ledger Editorial Board agreed with Mulshine and supports reducing restrictions on the bear hunt based on supposed public safety reasons. Sadly, the West Milford Town Council voted by a 4-2 margin to ask the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife to expand the bear hunt for public safety reasons. Are black bears a serious danger to humans? Does bear hunting increase public safety? Do non-lethal solutions provide a better alternative to increase public safety?
Fatal Bear Attacks Are Exceedingly Rare
Black bears rarely kill people especially in places like New Jersey. From 1900 to 2009, 63 people in North America were killed by black bears in 59 attacks. However, nearly 80% of these incidents took place in remote areas of Alaska and Canada, which are vastly different environments than New Jersey (i.e. bears infrequently encounter people and may be more likely to perceive humans as prey). Only 3 of these fatal attacks occurred in the eastern United States and none took place in New Jersey. While 63 fatalities initially sounds like a large number, it is quite small when you consider approximately 950,000 black bears and over 350 million people live in North America. According to black bear biologist Lynn Rogers, only one in a million black bears would try and kill someone. Assuming New Jersey has 2,800 bears based on recent population estimates and the average black bear lives 15 years, a black bear would kill a person in New Jersey once every 5,357 years. As a comparison, groups advocating hunting admit that around 100 people each year are killed in hunting accidents in the United States. Typically, black bears, which are much more timid than brown bears in western North America, flee or simply ignore people. Thus, the risk of a black bear killing a person in New Jersey is extremely low.
Tragic Bear Incident in West Milford Was Avoidable
Reports from witnesses detail the chain of events leading to the death of Darsh Patel. The black bear initially encountered and stalked, but did not attack, a male and female hiker. The two hikers warned five young men, which included the bear attack victim, not to proceed on the trail due to an aggressive bear. Instead of taking the advice, the five young men approached the bear and took photos with their cell phones from approximately 30 yards away. The bear subsequently slowly followed the young men and the group fled in separate directions. The victim lost his shoe, appeared exhausted and the bear was five feet from Mr. Patel when witnesses last saw him.
Human error caused this bear to transform from an aggressive to a deadly bear. Speaking as someone who has hiked in Apshawa Preserve, the park typically has plenty of hikers. This bear must have encountered many people before, such as the man and woman just prior to the deadly incident, and never initiated such an attack. Additionally, Dr. Steven Herrero’s research on fatal black bear attacks showed 91% of such incidents occurred when people hiked in groups of only 1-2 members. As such, the group of five young men, which should have been an unlikely target, clearly acted in a manner that provoked an attack. For example, approaching a black bear they knew was acting aggressively put themselves in danger. Also, the act of running from the bear likely triggered its prey drive much like a dog. In fact, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife specifically warns not to take these two actions (i.e. approaching and running away from a bear). Finally, Mr. Patel’s loss of his shoe and exhaustion likely made him appear highly vulnerable to the bear. As a result, the group’s actions likely turned a potentially dangerous bear into a deadly bear.
Venturing into wild places means one has to assume risk. Police and emergency medical services personnel have a difficult time reaching someone in these locations. Ironically, just two days after the West Milford bear attack, a woman fell off a cliff and suffered serious injuries while hiking in nearby Sparkill, New York. In a one month span, two people died from falls off the same Catskills hiking trail in Hunter, New York. Yet, none of these hiking fatalities received anywhere near the press coverage as the “bear kills man” story.
That being said, we need to take every dangerous and potentially dangerous incident seriously. While only one in a million bears would ever attack someone in this manner, a bear presenting a serious safety risk to people should be placed in a sanctuary or humanely killed if such sanctuary is not available.
New Jersey should revise its law limiting pepper spray to “one pocket-sized device” and build more signs on how to act around bears at trail heads. Bear spray, which is essentially a large canister of pepper spray, is highly effective and even more so than a gun. While I think bear spray is not needed for black bears in New Jersey, it may provide people the peace of mind they need. Additionally, building more signs at trailheads about how to act around a bear may have prevented the behavior that led to the fatal West Milford attack.
Public safety concerns surrounding black bears should focus on more common rather than fluke events. Frankly, fatal black bear attacks are too rare to drive black bear management decisions. However, other incidents, such as bears breaking into homes, occur more frequently and black bear management policies should focus on reducing these conflicts.
New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife Cannot Be Trusted to Implement Proper Bear Management Policies
The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife supports hunters and not the general public’s interests. Like most state fish and wildlife agencies, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife is mostly supported by hunting tag fees. While such fees could go to general government uses, these fees are instead specifically used to support wildlife management programs. Even worse than the financial incentive for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife to act in hunters interests, is the actual composition of the Fish and Game Council governing the agency. Specifically, the Fish and Game Council through an archaic 1945 law must have the following members:
1) 3 farmers recommended to the Governor for appointment by the agriculture convention
2) 6 “sportsmen”(i.e. hunters and fishers) recommended to the Governor for appointment by the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs
3) 2 commercial fisherman
One look at the Fish and Game’s composition shows 100% of its members come from group’s exploiting animals. Notably absent are any members focused on maintaining healthy ecosystems or animal welfare. In fact, the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s clubs, which appoints a majority of the Fish and Game Council, specifically states they support sport hunting and trapping. Even worse, New Jersey hunters only comprise approximately 1% of the state’s population, but hunters represent as many as 55% of the Fish and Game Council members. Thus, the Fish and Game Council is not an unbiased body making wildlife management decisions.
Highly Questionable Claims of Bear Hunt Increasing Public Safety
The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has long argued bear hunting was needed for public safety reasons. In 1997, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife called for a hunting season to “control” black bear numbers for “public safety” purposes despite New Jersey having less than 20% of the number of bears we have today. Even worse, the agency wanted to reduce the number of bears to around 300 in the entire state or around 10% of the number of bears we currently have. This policy would effectively eliminate the black bear’s critical ecological functions, which includes preying on overly abundant deer, and wildlife watchers, which far outnumber hunters, ability to view these magnificent creatures. Thus, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has long proposed draconian bear management policies.
The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s data supporting bear public safety concerns has significant flaws. NJ Advance Media, which provides analyses to the Star Ledger, used the agency’s data to argue the bear hunt is working despite reported serious bear complaints increasing the last two years when bear numbers decreased due to hunting.
The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife places bear complaints into the following groups:
1) Category 1: Bears posing a serious threat to people or property. Bears are killed as soon as possible.
2) Category 2: Nuisance bears which are not a threat to public safety or property. Use aversive conditioning methods, such as rubber bullets, to encourage bears to leave area.
3) Category 3: Bears exhibiting normal behaviors and not causing a nuisance or a threat to public safety. Generally provide advice to residents, but no action taken against bears.
Category 1 bear complaints are the only serious incidents potentially affecting public safety. However, most Category 1 complaints, which are used by the agency to argue for bear hunts, do not in fact represent public safety concerns. Specifically, agricultural damage claims exceeding $500 (i.e. bears eating crops, livestock kills, etc.), which farmers can take actions to stop, result in bears being classified as Category 1 and sentenced to death. For example, only 33 or 31% of Category 1 incidents in 2013 actually related to public safety. Similarly, only 52 or 31% of incidents from through October 20, 2014 actually posed a risk to human safety. Thus, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife inflates the “public safety” Category 1 incidents and uses those incidents to kill bears posing no risk to people.
The methods the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife uses to compile bear incidents are also flawed. Specifically, bear experts from the Fourth International Human-Bear Conflicts Workshop agreed using phone calls to measure bear incidents, which the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife does, is a terrible choice. For example, one reason New Jersey bear complaints may have increased over the last decade is due to greater use of cell phones rather than a real increase in bear incidents. Also, surges in public reporting of bear complaints may be due to more awareness of the issue rather than an increase in actual incidents. State wildlife agencies may in fact drum up fear and cause increased reporting of conflicts. Additionally, Dr. Edward A. Tavss, a Chemistry professor from Rutgers University, analyzed the the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s surge in incidents from 1999-2009 and found serious complaints actually decreased when data collection methods were standardized. Specifically, the agency used additional data sources, which included counting the same incidents twice, to collect data during the years bear complaints surged. Even worse, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife added a data collection source in 2003 which increased reported complaints and led to a bear hunt. As a result, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s data lacks credibility.
The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and NJ Advance Media’s claims that the bear hunt increased public safety are inconsistent with a number of studies. Pennsylvania, which has 18,000 black bears and 116,000 bear hunters, found bear hunts killing as much as 50% of the bear population did not reduce serious bear incidents and if anything may have increased conflicts. Similarly, Wisconsin also reported increased killing of bears during hunts had either no effect on or actually increased the number of serious bear incidents. Back in 2005, Dr. Edward Tavss reviewed a number of studies from different states, such as Virginia, New York, Minnesota and Ontario, Canada, and found bear hunting either increased or had no impact on the number of bear complaints. Most interestingly, Dr. Tavss noted Northeastern Pennsylvania, which is next door to and connected to New Jersey’s core bear population, reported more bear complaints despite more bears killed during hunts. Thus, the notion New Jersey’s bear hunt somehow has a completely different result is highly unlikely in my humble opinion.
The bear hunt may not increase public safety for a number of reasons. Logically, on the surface one would think fewer bears results in less human-bear interactions and lower numbers of complaints. Mark Ternent of the Pennsylvania Game Commission “found nuisance bears got killed equally as often as non-conflict bears” despite measures taken to encourage hunting near residential areas. Killing a resident bear who is not causing conflict opens up the territory for another bear who may cause problems. Additionally, hunting predators creates social chaos and typically results in younger populations. Like teenage humans, such bears are more likely to get into trouble. For example, an adolescent bear, who normally may not survive due to dominant bears occupying territories, may choose to raid garbage cans or invade homes due to the bear lacking skills to forage naturally. Thus, hunting bears may in fact increase rather than reduce conflicts with people.
Black bear hunting does not make bears fear people. The Star Ledger Editorial Board argued the bear hunt is necessary to make bears fear people. However, Dr. Stephen Stringham, who studied both brown and black bears in Alaska, Montana, California, New York and Vermont, refutes that point of view. Specifically, Dr. Stringham states bears shot by hunters usually die and therefore can’t learn to fear people. Furthermore, bears learn fear more from being stalked, which can be done by non-hunters, such as photographers. The New Jersey hunt will induce even less fear due to hunters being allowed to shoot bears eating bait, such as jelly doughnuts. Most bears shot will be killed and will require little to no stalking. Furthermore, the West Milford fatal bear attack occurred after several hunting seasons. While the attack occurred in a very small area where hunting is prohibited, the male black bear who killed Darsh Patel certainly would have had a home range encompassing adjacent areas where bear hunting is allowed. As a result, the bear hunt will not make bears fear people to any significant degree and increase public safety.
Black bear hunting reduces public safety by increasing the risk people are accidentally shot. Public safety is quite an ironic argument bear hunt supporters use. Each year around 100 people are killed by hunters in the United States while only 63 people were killed by black bears in both the United States and Canada over a 110 year period. During hunting season in New Jersey, hikers flock to the few protected areas where hunting is prohibited or significantly limited. These very same areas, such a Pyramid Mountain Natural Historic Area, have large bear populations. If hikers were more concerned with black bears than hunters, the hikers would go to the areas filled with hunters. People rightly are more concerned with the much higher risk of being shot by a hunter. Thus, the bear hunt likely reduces public safety by increasing the risk people are accidentally shot by hunters.
Effective Garbage Control is the Only the Solution to Human-Bear Conflicts
Scientific studies consistently show effective garbage control is key to reducing black bear conflicts with people. Dr. Edward A. Tavss conducted a review, which was mostly based off peer-reviewed scientific studies, in 2005 showing effective garbage control policies significantly reduced bear conflicts with humans. Specifically, garbage control decreased conflicts in Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, Great Smoky National Park, Juneau, Alaska, Elliot Lake, Ontario, Nevada’s Lake Tahoe Basin and New Jersey from 1999-2005 when non-lethal efforts were focused on. Also, additional communities implemented these programs since then. Logically, this makes sense as easily accessible garbage provides bears, which require large amounts of food to survive winter hibernation, far more calories with much less effort than naturally foraging. The garbage therefore encourages bears to leave the woods and hang out in developed areas. Unfortunately, bears, like many food-habituated animals, may lose their fear of people and become a risk to public safety. Additionally, the extra calories bears obtain from unsecured garbage allow sows to have larger litters and greater numbers of those cubs to survive. As a result, unsecured garbage in bear country increases the number of bears and encourages bears to hang out in developed areas.
New Jersey does not effectively prevent bears from accessing garbage and other human sources of food. While New Jersey has a law that prohibits intentional feeding of bears, the law is not enforced. Many times I’ve driven through neighborhoods bordering protected areas with dense bear populations and seen flimsy garbage containers or loose bags of trash. Similarly, Susan Russell of the League of Humane Voters of New Jersey shared photos of readily accessible garbage in West Milford’s bear country. Despite the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s nonsensical claim that there is 99% compliance with New Jersey’s guidelines for restaurants to secure garbage, News 4 New York found dozens of unsecured garbage containers in Allamuchy, Liberty and Independence townships on the first day of the 2010 bear hunt. Furthermore, New Jersey deer hunters leave over 1 million pounds of food as bait for deer each year in the state’s forests. Additional amounts are also left by bear hunters as well. Thus, New Jersey has much to do to reduce the availability of human foods to bears.
Preventing bears from accessing garbage also makes efforts to keep bears away from humans easier. Aversive conditioning, which consists of such things as shooting bears with rubber bullets, using specially trained dogs to harass bears, and loud noises, attempts to encourage nuisance bears to leave residential areas. Research indicates aversive conditioning efforts are far more effective if bears are not food conditioned. As a result, preventing bears access to food helps efforts to encourage bears to leave residential areas.
Effective Garbage Control is Cheap
A recent peer reviewed study showed bear proof garbage cans significantly reduced black bear conflicts with people. The study, which was published in the Southeastern Naturalist, took place in Florida and compared bear incidents and interactions in two areas before and after bear proof garbage containers were provided to residents. Researchers gave residents a common bear proof garbage container, which costs about $150 more than a regular trash can, in one area and provided a regular garbage can with a $20 bear proof modification to people in another location. The study’s key findings on the more expensive bear proof garbage container were as follows:
1) The percentage of respondents reporting bears in their garbage decreased from around 75% before bear proof garbage cans were used to around 10% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used
2) The percentage of respondents reporting a bear in their yard decreased from 85% before bear proof garbage cans were used to 32% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used
3) The percentage of respondents reporting seeing a bear at least every few days decreased from 28% before bear proof garbage cans were used to 3% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used
4) The percentage of respondents reporting not seeing a bear increased from 5% before bear proof garbage cans were used to 39% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used
5) 90% of respondents felt the bear proof cans were effective and 97% would recommend them to someone else
The study also found the $20 modified bear proof garbage containers also reduced bear conflicts as follows:
1) The percentage of respondents reporting bears in their garbage decreased from around 60% before the bear proof garbage cans were used to less than 5% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used
2) The percentage of respondents reporting a bear in their yard decreased from 41% before bear proof garbage cans were used to 16% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used
3) The percentage of respondents reporting seeing a bear at least every few days decreased from 47% before bear proof garbage cans were used to zero a year after bear proof garbage cans were used
4) The percentage of respondents reporting not seeing a bear increased from 38% before bear proof garbage cans were used to 68% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used
5) 72% of respondents felt the bear proof cans were effective and 91% would recommend them to someone else
Furthermore, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported a 69% decrease in bear incidents reported in the two areas after the bear proof garbage cans were used. Additionally, other sources of human food provided to bears, such as pet food and bird/wildlife feeding, were not eliminated and doing so could have further decreased the number of bear-human interactions. As a result, bear proof garbage containers as cheap as $20 can significantly reduce bear conflicts to manageable levels.
Black Bear Hunting Makes So Sense from Ecological or Animal Welfare Perspectives
Hunting predators makes no ecological sense. In the natural world, adult large carnivores, such as black bears are not preyed on by other animals except for fluke incidents. However, most states, such as New Jersey, institute hunting seasons on these animals resulting in unnaturally low carnivore numbers. Biologist, hunter and former hunting guide, George Wuerthener, persuasively argues that state wildlife agencies, such as the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, consistently ignore the ecological role predators play and the social composition of carnivores. Black bears are key seed dispersers. For example, bears consume berries and spread the seeds elsewhere when they defecate. Additionally, bears break up logs while searching for insects and help the process of decay. Also, black bears may help limit overly abundant whitetail deer populations through their predation on fawns. Furthermore, hunting tends to skew the population to less experienced animals, who may have less foraging knowledge, and therefore may less effectively fulfill their ecological role as mature animals. Thus, the bear hunt artificially depresses the bear population and results in less healthy forests.
The bear hunt also makes no sense from a moral point of view. While an argument could be made human hunters make up for extinct native carnivores which preyed on New Jersey whitetail deer, such as red wolves and cougars, the same argument cannot be made for New Jersey black bears who have no natural predators. Recent research on populations of heavily hunted gray wolves, who also have no natural predators, show these wolves have elevated levels of stress hormones that potentially have significant negative evolutionary and human conflict effects. Furthermore, black bear hunting at current levels likely will result in few black bears living anywhere close to their natural lifespan without hunting. Additionally, New Jersey’s black bear hunt under the guise of “population control” allows slob hunting practices, which violate ethical hunting concepts such as fair chase. For example, bears can be shot over bait, such as jelly doughnuts, and the New Jersey Division of Wildlife actually encourages hunters to shoot mothers with cubs and cubs as well. This line of thinking is supported by a recent study by two biology professors, including the world famous Isle Royale Wolf Project researcher John Vucetich, who persuasively argue that predator hunting is not justified from a biological, moral or ethical point of view. Thus, the New Jersey bear hunt should not take place based on a moral argument as well.
The tragic incident in West Milford should not be the basis to implement a terrible bear policy with even worse consequences. We should not respond in anger with a pitchfork mentality that will reduce rather than increase public safety. Instead, we should use the increased attention to get serious on reducing conflicts we have control over. At the very least, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife can start providing people in high density bear areas the $20 modification to make garbage cans bear proof. In the end, we have to act rational and not in a knee jerk manner. New Jersey residents by and large are compassionate and smart. Let’s act in a way that fits with who we are as a people. I’m confident if we do that we will implement the proper bear policy.