The two bears that have recently taken up residence in Mills Reservation have certainly stirred up some controversy. The lovely forest, just 157 acres, is popular with walkers, joggers, dogs, and children who live in the Montclair area. To learn more about the bears, why they’re attracted to the small woodland, and how to best deal with them, we spoke with Linda Morschauser, a wildilife specialist with the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife’s Black Bear Project. Morschauser generously shared her time to tell us…Everything you always wanted to know about the bears in Mills Reservation* (*But were afraid to ask.)
Is it safe to visit Mills Reservation with the bears there?
If you feel comfortable, go ahead. But be alert and cautious. Keep your children next to you. Let them know these aren’t cuddly teddy bears. Stay on the trails, have a cell phone on you, don’t walk alone or after dark. Be aware of your surroundings. These are common sense things. Know how to react when you see a bear: don’t run, scream, or make eye contact. Just turn and walk away. Other tips for residents living nearby are to put ammonia in your garbage, double bag it, keep it inside, don’t feed your pets outside, and take down your bird feeders.
If you see a bear and don’t feel safe, call the police. If bears are in your backyard, make a ton of noise until they leave. You want to instill a fear of humans in them. That’s all you can do. We wouldn’t want everyone to be locked in their homes, terrified of the bears. We want to educate people to be able to live with them. You never know, there could be more bears coming into the area. Their population is slowly growing.
Maybe more bears moving in? Why is that?
We haven’t had the bear hunt going on long enough to stop the population from growing—at least in our study area, which is located west of 287 and north of route 78.
Is the bear hunt similar to the annual Essex County deer hunt?
Yes. We’ve held a bear hunt for the last three years, during one week in December, in our study area. It’s controversial, but necessary, like the deer hunt, because bear are overpopulated in the area. But interest in the hunt is declining, while the bear population is increasing. Last December, hunters only took 280-plus bears, the year before over 400, and the first year over 700.
What would it take for the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife to remove the bears?
We have a policy we follow. If the bears are just being bears and not getting into trouble, we don’t intervene. It’s part of the New Jersey black bear management plan for the Division of Fish and Wildlife. These bears haven’t shown any signs of aggression. Bears in backyards leaving droppings–that’s nature. Our priority is to trap bears that are showing aggressive behaviors like breaking into peoples’ homes, garages, and cars for food, and killing livestock.
Why did you remove the bear from the Watchung area of Montclair last week?
The bear was roaming around for a few days, walking around on the sidewalks, creating a hazard. We were monitoring it. When the bear got stuck in the tree–that was a good time to get it. We shot the bear with a tranquilizer, and it fell into our net. It’s tougher to get a bear in the forest. It could elude us. We’d need a park employee to check traps daily. Though it might be too busy of an area to set traps.
What’s drawing the bears to Mills? Is it the cicadas?
Everyone is blaming the cicadas, and they do eat them, but it’s hard to say if that’s the reason. There’s obviously a food source for them in there. There are probably berry bushes about to bloom, skunk cabbage, and a water source. But eventually the berries will run out and they’ll go somewhere else for food. If everyone in the surrounding area is doing a good job with their garbage, the bears will hopefully go north or south, and get over route 80 and 23.
Some residents say these bears don’t seem very afraid of humans. There are reports of bears coming in close contact with people, and rearing on their haunches.
A bear getting up on its hind legs is a normal reaction. They’re just trying to smell the air and get a better look at you. It’s not an aggressive stance. If a bear is getting agitated, it may swat at the ground, huff and puff, and bluff charge. That’s normal behavior. It’s letting you know it’s there.
The bears might be a mom and a yearling, or two yearlings. This is the time of year when they’re trying to establish territories. They don’t have cubs with them, so you don’t have to worry about the bears aggressively protecting their cubs.
Should schools be closed when there’s a bear in the area?
It’s going a little overboard unless a bear is running around the swing set. If you’re out for recess and see a bear in the area, keep a calm, controlled environment and say, “OK, kids, let’s go back inside.” But if a bear is 10 blocks away, there’s no reason to keep the kids inside. Call the police, and have them patrol the area. We want people to be educated and not instill total panic into little kids about the bears.
What do black bears eat?
Bears are opportunistic feeders, which means they’ll eat whatever they can get their hands on. Berries are the big thing right now–they’re gorging themselves on them. They also eat bugs, grubs, and other plants. They can run fast if there’s a reason to, and they might eat small rodents. They look clunky but are pretty agile, and pretty smart. They know how to get food–that’s their driving factor.
What about protecting our pets? Under what circumstances might a bear harm a dog?
A dog may instinctively run at a bear. The bear will swat it in defense, and the dog will be injured. It’s rare for a bear to randomly attack a dog. But that’s another reason why you should keep your dogs on leashes. And no, bears don’t eat dogs.
What happens if, God forbid, a bear harms someone?
If that happened, we’d come immediately and euthanize the bear. And if a police officer noticed a bear doing something dangerous, they could also put the bear down. The last time I remember something like that happening with a black bear was years ago. A guy said a bear ran at him and knocked him over. Grizzlies out west are a lot larger and more aggressive, but black bears very rarely attack people.
Is the state planning to post a bear warning sign in Mills?
There are no plans for that.
What can residents do if, after reading all this, they’re still concerned about the bears?
If you want to talk to us about your concerns, call our 24-hour hotline at (877) 927-6337. We’ll call you back if you need assistance or have questions. We also have lots of information on our website.
We’re telling people to go about their daily business. Some residents are worried and scared, but they’re just not used to seeing bears. We have lots of experience with this.
Do you think at some point the bears will need to be removed?
I’ll bet you that next week, if a ton of people are still calling in, we’ll come out and try to get the bears. A majority of the people calling us live right along the edge of the reservation. There aren’t many crazy, irate people demanding that we come and get the bears.
The bears have been there over a week now. There’s a decent chance they’ll leave soon. If you look at an aerial map, there are greenways leading in and out of Montclair. The bears found their way there, and they can find their way out.