By Margo D. Beller
Scherman Hoffman gets a lot of visitors all seasons of the year. Some want a quiet hike in the woods. Some look for migrant birds in the spring or migrating raptors in the fall. Some come to buy supplies - binoculars, feeders, books or bird food -- from the nature store. Some come for the educational programs Starting last summer, visitors came for the growing sport of geocaching.
Visitors have ranged from the famous to the more humble. But there is one visitor I'm sure Scherman Hoffman and the other New Jersey Audubon centers would rather do without - black bear.
It may not seem like it after such a long spell of cold weather, but winter is over. I've already seen signs of spring in my yard, finally. Crocus and snowdrops are blooming and the daffodils and iris are coming up. I've also seen chipmunks, the bane of my garden because of their digging.
Chipmunks hibernate during the winter and come out when it is warm. So do bears. I put up with little chipmunks, begrudgingly. Bears scare me.
Scherman Hoffman Director Mike Anderson remembers a bear that visited about 10 years ago.
"The bear took down the feeders. After everyone drove up the hill from [New Jersey Audubon headquarters] and got a look we made a lot of noise and it ran off," he said. "That was probably the first sighting in 50 years."
Times have changed. Mike said last summer alone there were nine separate bears seen in the area including a big male, a little male, a sow with two cubs and a sow with three cubs.
When those cubs get bigger they start wandering to find new territories, and that is why bears are now seen in all 21 counties of New Jersey. New Jersey is one of the most built-up states in America, and that means there is a greater chance you are going to come in contact with a bear at some point, if not at a park then in your backyard.
My first close bear encounter came last year when my husband and I were on Old Mine Road in Sussex County to do some birding. We were driving and suddenly there was a bruin (the one pictured) sauntering in the middle of a road where the speed limit is low but most people just blow through. Luckily, we were alone on the road and going slow.
We pulled to the side of the road and parked so my husband could take a picture from the car. He was not going to duplicate the stunt of the guy who so wanted his kid in a picture with a bear that he used a bagel to entice it closer. His kid was mauled.
As we sat in the car the bear casually looked at us, then ambled off the road and up a hill. My first bear, I thought. It was not a complete surprise because Sussex County has been bear country for decades.
This past March 27, the encounter hit home - literally. One of my feeder poles was bent to the ground and a feeder lay there empty and partially damaged. Who would do something like this in the middle of the night? I asked my husband. He knew immediately - a hungry bear just out of hibernation.
Since then I take the feeders inside at night. Mike Anderson says for the last five years Scherman Hoffman has done the same thing - taking them in at night once it starts to warm up. (The feeders are not out at all during summer camp, and I don't have feeders out after Memorial Day.)
I got off easy - it was only a bent feeder pole I can replace. Bears can destroy property, including livestock and small pets in the backyard. Get between a sow and her cubs and you have put yourself into great danger.
One of the most horrifying incidents involving bears in recent years was the killing of a Rutgers University student who was hiking with friends. This attack, the first recorded fatality in the state’s history, brought new calls for a longer bear hunt. New Jersey agreed and has decided to expand the hunt to twice a year.
Like bear, deer were almost hunted to extinction. Then the pendulum swung the other way and the deer population got out of control. Deer destroy forest undergrowth with their browsing, which has a major effect on the rest of the forest population including birds.
A bear is more dangerous. The one I saw on Old Mine Road was several hundred pounds and not intimidated by my car. I wouldn't have wanted to mess with the one that took down my feeder pole either.
You can't hunt bear at Scherman Hoffman -- it's a wildlife sanctuary. But you can be prepared. There are a number of sites where you can find rules for avoiding a bear encounter. These happen to come from the National Parks Conservation Association site:
Keep your distance and allow the bear every opportunity to avoid you.
If the bear continues to approach you, it is most likely trying to identify what you are. Remain calm. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
Identify yourself by talking in a normal voice.
Try to back away slowly at a diagonal angle. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground.
Don't run. Bears can reach speeds of 35 mph, and like dogs they will chase fleeing animals.
If the bear gets too close, wave your arms, raise your voice and be more aggressive. Never make high-pitched squeals or attempt to sound like a bear.
In short, don't be foolish. This is no bedside Teddy.
Beware the bear.