Black Bears Are Not Celebrities

Black Bears aren’t Celebrities
By Anthony P Mauro, Sr (c) 2011

Conservation Corner w/ Anthony P. Mauro, Sr
Conservation Corner w/ Anthony P. Mauro, Sr

USA –-( Between the frequent media coverage that black bears receive in New Jersey, and reports of melodramatic behavior by a few bear devotees spouting sensational claims, it seems as if black bears now rank with Real Housewives of New Jersey and Jersey Shore for a share of celebrity status.

But bears are not celebrities and it is detrimental to both bears and people for them to be treated as such.

As much as we enjoy assigning human qualities to bears in cartoons, advertising and Disney theme parks, these unreal depictions act to impede our understanding of the important role bears play in healthy ecosystems and diminish the animal’s significance as a living thing.

Bears rely on instinct to navigate the course of their daily lives, whereas humans use rational thought. These are two distinctly different points of reference and they create wide gaps in our ability to communicate and interpret the intentions the other, which leaves plenty of room for misunderstandings.

Food and fear largely drive the behavior of black bears. These large plantigrades are carnivorous or omnivorous mammals with strong claws. They live in largely forested areas, but will leave forests in search of food. Bears are often attracted to human communities because of the immediate availability of food.

Regarding food, there are currently parts of New Jersey that appear to be experiencing a low producing wild blueberry crop and poor oak mast production. Blueberries and mast are staples of the black bear diet. If we add a possible food shortage to the doubling of the bear population since 2005 we have the formula for increases in bear and human contact and a potential for conflict.

While black bears are shy by nature, and fatal and nonfatal bear attacks are very rare, it would be irresponsible to ignore that attacks occur. In the book, “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance,” Dr. Stephen Herrero reports that in the period between 1900 and 1980 twenty people were involved in a fatal black bear attack. He reports that of those twenty fatalities, eighteen appear to be from predaceous black bears, meaning, they viewed humans as prey and attacked for food. Since 1980 there have been approximately 32 deaths by black bears – 13 of those occurred since the year 2000.

Recent scientific studies of the history of black bear attacks have revealed that the majority of these strikes have been in areas of expanding population. Scientists speculate that the attacks are a result of a population of black bears coming into contact with humans for the first time.

It is beneficial for both bears and humans that contact is minimized. While bear education programs and secured trash cans are helpful in limiting bear/human conflicts they do nothing to control the expanding bear population. They also do not help to aversively condition bears so that they have a healthy fear of humans.

Dr. Len Wolgast is an expert on black bears. He is Professor Emeritus Wildlife Ecology and Management Rutgers University, was the primary author of the 2005 Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy, and also served as a Fish and Game Council member. Regarding black bear management Dr. Wolgast states:

“New Jersey presently supports a black bear population which far exceeds the number of animals that can exist without causing too many problems for the residents of our state. The only cost effective tool that is available to reduce the bear population to a more tolerable level is hunting. The three most recent New Jersey bear seasons (2003, 2005, and 2010) have occurred under a very conservative format. They were designed to slow the growth of the bear population and gather data. It is my opinion that future bear hunting seasons will need to be designed to reduce the density of New Jersey’s bear population.”

Hunting not only effectively manages bear populations but is a valuable tool for conditioning bears to respect the living space of humans. As with all game, bear is used as a source of food for hunters and their families.

Black bears are magnificent creatures. Decisions made by New Jersey conservationists more than thirty years ago are the basis for today’s flourishing population. But, humans have a history of being unforgiving when one of our own is harmed and we have a responsibility to black bears to ensure that they are not the subject of our reactive and callous natures.

Black bears deserve our awe and respect, but they aren’t celebrities and it is irresponsible to treat them as such.

Color The Green Movement Blue
Color The Green Movement Blue

Anthony P. Mauro, Sr, (also known as “Ant” to friends and associates) is Chairman and co-founder of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance.

In addition to NJOA, Ant’s commitment to the principles of sustainable use of natural resources and stewardship for the environment helped to found the New Jersey Angling & Hunting Conservation Caucus. The NJAHC is the first outdoor caucus of its kind in New Jersey and is designed to educate opinion leaders and policy makers of the principles of conservation and the benefits that confer to the state’s wildlife and ecology.

A lifelong resident of New Jersey, Ant is an international big game hunter and avid conservationist. He has authored two books on conservation and hunting, including “Color The Green Movement Blue“.