When most people envision bears, they picture them roaming the vast forests of the west, pulling salmon from rushing rivers or running through the grassy meadows of Alaska. For more and more New Jersey condo owners, however, that vision has become far more suburban with black bears appearing in backyards, on patios, crossing streets and, in a few rare instances, trying to get in through the back door.
In 2005, there were close to 1,000 reports of human encounters with bears in New Jersey alone. Most of these sightings have taken place in Sussex, Warren, Passaic and Morris counties, north of Interstate 80 and west of Interstate 287. That said, bears have been spotted throughout New Jersey, showing their incredible environmental adaptability.
The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife reports that close to 1,500 black bears populated a sample area of 580 square miles in the state. That factors out to 2.56 bears per square mile. In 2005, the estimated population had risen to more than 1,600. Total New Jersey bear numbers fall anywhere between 1,600 and 2,500 animals. In America's most populous state where new construction continues to sprawl into previously undeveloped areas, it appears as though man and bear have become firmly entrenched in each other's worlds.
The Bear Facts
For most people, one of the bonuses of living in a country setting is the opportunity to see wildlife up close and in your backyard. Sometimes people can forget that these creatures are indeed wild. That's where the problems start.
The average male black bear weighs in at around 396 pounds with an average female tilting the scales at 185. With a length of five to six feet and a shoulder height of 30 to 40 inches, that translates into one big anima—the largest land mammal, in fact, in the state.
To maintain their bear-ish figures, bears must find food. As omnivores, black bears will eat everything from plants and leaves to small mammals, insects, bird eggs, carrion and jelly donuts. Yes, just like Yogi. The steady influx of housing developments has expanded that diet even more, with garbage bags and unsecured garbage cans subbing as buffet platters for hungry bears.
"More and more bears associate people and garbage with food," says Priscilla Feral, president of the group Friends of Animals headquartered in Darien, Connecticut. "When people are having conflicts with bears, it has to do with food. It's a mistake to allow these animals to associate people with food. We can't lure them with that and then expect there to not be any repercussions."
The statistics for 2004 bear complaints registered to the Fish and Wildlife Division support this conclusion: 511 out of 756 complaints were nuisance and garbage complaints. Bird feeder damage and property damage came in third and fourth on the list. These encounters for the most part have been civil with only one report of an attack on a human and 10 reports of attempted home entries. In fact, in the last 100 years, only two people have been killed by black bears in New Jersey.
A Question of Liability
For homeowner associations, these meetings of man and beast can cause headaches. From property damage to concerns about safety, it is in every condo community's interest to keep bear and man apart.
Although homeowner's associations do not appear to be responsible for any liability specific to bear encounters, safety is of course always the highest priority. No specific insurance policies exist to cover damage inflicted by bears, says Teri Piervicenti of Boyarin Hourigan Blundell, an insurance company based in Toms River. "We have specific exclusions for rodents and squirrels," she says, "but nothing larger. If an animal did something to a home, it would be considered property damage." So a homeowner's association with a general policy that includes property damage would be covered. However, "Most condo associations have large deductibles," Piervicenti says. The damage would have to be more than $1,000 to $10,000, depending on that deductible, before the insurance company would become involved. If the interior contents of an actual home were destroyed, that would fall under the homeowner's individual policy.
Keeping the Problem at Bay
Even without the worry of liability, HOAs should consider some ground rules that will minimize the bear issue. "Condo associations are probably best suited to handle these problems," says Feral, referring to the governing body's ability to create and enforce rules that will minimize bear incursions.
Experts seem to agree that the most important action a homeowner can take involves proper management of waste disposal. The Fish and Wildlife Division urges people to take four important steps to avoid attracting bears. First, garbage should be stored in airtight containers in a secure area. Second, garbage bins should be kept near the inside wall of a garage, basement or secure shed. Third, garbage and recycling containers should be washed with disinfectant solution at least once a week to eliminate odors. Finally, garbage should be put out the day of disposal - not the night before.
Feral believes the airtight garbage bins will provide the real key to staving off bears. "These bins must be bear-proof," she says. "It's a more expensive can, but it works. If the cans are aerated, it defeats the purpose. And people simply can't dispose of garbage in plastic bags." As quickly as a hungry person will tear the plastic off a Whopper, that's how fast a bear will claw apart a garbage bag filled with savory leftovers.
Fish and Wildlife also suggests that people clean their barbecue grills frequently, as the scent of grease will attract bears with good noses. Birdfeeders should only be hung between December 1 and April 1, when bears are least active. And throughout the year, homeowners should keep a careful eye on small pets like cats and rabbits, and refrain from feeding their dogs outside. Although 75 percent of a bear's diet involves vegetation, these are still wild animals that could easily attack domesticated animals if provoked or frightened.
Condo associations can very easily convert these suggestions into regulations, creating a safe environment while maintaining a secure détente with the black bears. It is important for every homeowner to follow the rules, too. All it takes is for one resident to throw scraps to a bear or leave tasty treats unattended, and soon the animal will believe he has found his best new food source. If that is the case, he will return again and again.
Providing annual reminder notices on the bear issue also can help keep residents aware. It's also important to instruct homeowners on what to do in case they come face to face with a bear. People should try not to startle or sneak up on a bear; instead, they should talk loudly so the bear knows they are there. People also should not turn and run, even if the bear begins to make a lot of noise. Instead, the person should back away slowly—and shouting and yelling can also be an effective deterrent that could scare the bear enough to keep it out of the yard in the future. Before scaring the bear, however, people should make sure there is a visible exit into which the creature can escape. A cornered bear is a formidable danger, even if it's a relatively small animal.
Finding the Right Balance
As the number of bear encounters increases and suburban sprawl continues to turn wooded areas into backyards, state officials face a difficult dilemma. How can they keep human and bear populations separated?
This past December, the state of New Jersey called for a bear hunt—the first in New Jersey since the 1970s when the bear population dropped as low as 100. With a goal of reducing the bear population by 10 percent, the state issued licenses to hunters who brought down 280 bears. More than 100 animal-rights supporters turned out to protest the six-day event.
"There are no alternatives to manage the bear population other than a hunt," Martin McHugh, director of the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Division, told CBS News at the time. "I believe we'll now see a reduction in nuisance complaints, a reduction in serious complaints and that we'll get more information about these bears because of this."
For her part, Feral believes that the hunt posed only a temporary solution. "Reducing the bear population by 10 percent does not teach the other 90 percent not to go through trash," she says, adding that culling the bear population also leaves orphaned bear cubs who may be more likely to scavenge because they did not learn hunting skills from the parent bear.
Feral urges homeowners to make the necessary life-style adjustments to live shoulder-to-shoulder with New Jersey's bear population. "If people want to live in areas where they can enjoy nature and see bears and foxes and other animals, than they should be willing to adjust," she says.
In addition to the hunt, the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Division has a wide range of tactics suitable for dealing with individual bear encounters. The Wildlife Control Unit employs biologists and technicians trained in wildlife management techniques who provide advice to callers with minor bear problems. These personnel also actively trap and aversely condition bears responsible for recurring nuisance incidents. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has begun work on the feasibility of contraception and sterilization as a means of controlling the bear population, although those solutions are still in the very early planning stages.
For New Jersey residents, learning to live with bears may be a work-in-progress. It may involve some extra effort, care and planning, but when the end result is a home in a beautiful wooded area with exquisite animals and breathtaking scenery just beyond that backyard fence, it all seems worth it.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.