Don’t Feed the Bears—or Take Selfies With Them

New Jersey closes two state parks after a spate of bear attacks that officials attribute to illegal feeding of the animals by snapshot-happy people.

A black bear stands in a wooded area in Newton, New Jersey. (Photo: Barbara Goldberg/Reuters)

Oct 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Following a spate of death-defying encounters between overly aggressive bears and hikers in northern New Jersey, wildlife officials have a message for the public: Don’t feed the bears, or the bears may try to feed on you.

Two state parks in New Jersey remain closed to visitors because of several encounters between hikers and unusually hostile black bears, which typically shy away from people and rarely attack them.

“We’ve never had anything quite like this,” said Lawrence Hajna, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “We’ve never closed down a state forest because of bears acting aggressively to this degree.”

Why the rash of incidents? The most likely explanation, Hajna said, is that people—both hikers and residents—may be feeding the bears, making them less fearful of humans and leading to more frequent and more dangerous chance meetings as they seek handouts.

“Bears can distinguish human food,” Hajna said. “Given the choice of a granola bar versus some hickory nuts, the bear is going to choose the granola bar. And it will absolutely associate that with humans.”

On Sept. 19 in Ramapo Mountain State Forest, a 21-year-old woman and a seven-year-old boy were chased by a “potentially aggressive” bear, according to a DEP statement. “The same day, a man reported that a bear would not back down and paced in front of him and his dog for several minutes before taking off.”

Two weeks later, three female hikers reported being pursued by a bear, and later that day, a male hiker said a bear swatted at him and pursued him for quite some time before giving up the chase.

Also that day, a state Division of Fish and Wildlife biologist came across a hostile animal. “This bear also showed signs of being potentially aggressive, would not leave the area and showed no fear of the technician,” the statement said. The forest was closed on Oct. 5.

Last weekend on Ramapo Valley Reservation, a bear took off after eight hikers, who managed to escape. The reservation was closed on Wednesday.

Four bears have been euthanized since the incidents began, the DEP said. None of them showed any sign of fearing people, “suggesting that they had become habituated to people, possibly due to illegal feeding.”

Wildlife officials have begun an investigation of illegal feeding and the rise in risky bear encounters. Signs are being posted in state parks telling people not to feed the bears, which is illegal in the state and carries a $1,000 fine. There are an estimated 3,600 black bears in northwest New Jersey, Hajna said.

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To reduce dangerous bear-human encounters, the state runs a controversial bear hunt. In 2010, the first year, 592 animals were killed. Last year, that number fell to 272.

The bold-bear problem is not isolated to New Jersey.

“Generally speaking, it does seem to be a growing issue, where bears are habituated to people, and instead of being repelled by people they are attracted to them as a potential food source,” said Dave Garshelis, a bear research scientist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Not the person themselves, but what they might be carrying.”

Both Garshelis and Hajna said there were several reports of hikers feeding bears by hand, or even mouth to mouth, supposedly for the thrill of it and the chance for an unforgettable selfie. Other park visitors leave food on the trail, and the bears either see them do it or can smell human scent on the treats.

Homeowners are also known to leave food outside to attract bears. “They get pictures,” Garshelis said. “It’s a pretty cool thing to be so close with a species that maybe they didn’t see before in their life.”

Human-bear encounters are on the rise, Garshelis said, because there are more bears where people live and more people where bears live. Making the situation more perilous, most people turn and run as habituated bears approach hikers for food, which is just about the worst thing to do.

“Most bears will just leave, but the odd bear will chase and could kill the person and could eat the person,” Garshelis said.

The New Jersey DEP has issued tips for encountering bears: Raise your arms, make loud noises, don’t make eye contact, and slowly back away. And rule No. 1: Don’t feed the bears.

“For the most part, the message is getting through about feeding bears,” Hajna said. “But there’s always people out there who haven’t got the message or don’t want to get the message.”