Nature enthusiasts across North Jersey were both alarmed and confused by a July 22nd update to Worthington State Forest’s Facebook page:
“Due to increased bear activity, the Pahaquarry Trail (blue dot), Mt. Tammany trail (red dot), and all access to Mount Tammany is closed until further notice.”
The wording raised more questions than it answers. What did “increased bear activity” mean? Did that refer to a greater number of bear encounters or increased aggression in the existing bear population?
More concrete details have now emerged. According to Larry Hajna, Press Director of the NJDEP, officials made the decision to close the trails after a black bear approached hikers within five feet.
NJDEP Fish and Wildlife set a trap and successfully caught the bear, discovering that it was a 150-pound female with two cubs.
Unfortunately for her, “The bear was deemed to have displayed Category 1 behavior and was euthanized per protocols,” Hajna wrote in an email.
According to the NJ Fish and Wildlife website, Category 1 is the classification for “bears which are a threat to public safety and property.” Examples of Category 1 behavior include attacking humans, pets, or livestock, entering homes or tents, and destroying agricultural property.
As for the two cubs, NJ DEP officials estimated that they were old enough to survive on their own. They have since been relocated.
Worthington State Forest reopened all previously closed trails on July 26th.
Bob Wolff, fire observer at Catfish Fire Tower in Hardwick and a retired State Fire Warden, has been dealing with bears since the 80s. The largest black bear he’s ever personally seen was the size of a Volkswagen. The largest one he’s ever heard of clocked in at an impressive 800 pounds. That’s far larger than the size of the average black bear: about 400 pounds for males (called boars) and 175 pounds for females (called sows).
Wolff estimates that the 150-pound bear trapped in Worthington State Forest must have been a yearling, born in the winter of ‘21 – ‘22 and not fully grown.
This latest bear incident occurs in a context of reduced bear encounters statewide compared to last year.
“The latest data show a 34 percent overall decline in [bear] incidents Jan. 1 through July 21 of this year compared to the same period last year,” Hajna wrote.
This decrease is more pronounced in Warren County, where January 1 to July 21, 2022 saw a total of 204 bear incidents vs. 121 incidents in the same period of 2023, a decline of 40.6%.
The monthly data reports show an even sharper decrease year over year. June 20 to July 21, 2022, saw a total of 385 bear incidents statewide. The same period in 2023 saw a much smaller total of 187 incidents, a decrease of 51%. Warren County’s monthly bear incidents fell by the same percentage.
The thought of encountering a bear in the wild might inspire a sudden desire for bear spray, but there are easier ways to stay safe. If you stumble onto a bear while hiking, NJDEP recommends slowly backing away while making yourself appear bigger by raising your arms or holding a jacket above your head.
Be calm but avoid eye contact– bears, like some dogs, may perceive it as a challenge. Talk in a loud, firm voice to scare the bear away and open a space for the bear to make its escape.
As always, though, the best solution is prevention. Most bears are naturally wary of humans and will make themselves scarce at the sound of a human voice. However, one change can override that instinct: if a bear learns to associate people with food, it may lose its natural fear of humans.
That’s why the most important safety tip is to never, ever feed a wild animal, especially a 175 – 400-pound predator. If fed, animals may come to expect food from humans and approach them in the wild like ferocious trick-or-treaters, turning aggressive if a free lunch fails to materialize.
This all but guarantees that the animal will be classified as Category 1 and meet the same fate as the mother yearling on Mount Tammany.
In a state as crowded as New Jersey, where remaining habitats for wildlife must squeeze between suburbs, respect for wildlife is key. This applies doubly to bears.
“One thing I think is pretty cool,” says Wolff, “is that even in the most populated state of people per square mile… yet we have the biggest mammals here with us.”
If hikers and residents in bear country can agree to follow the guidelines for wildlife safety, it can be a peaceful coexistence.
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.