Numbers of bears on the increase in New York area

Run-ins with humans more common as housing encroaches on woods

August 28, 2002|By Winnie Hu | Winnie Hu,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The fatal mauling of a baby girl in the Catskills recently follows a spate of bear sightings in recent years that has concerned wildlife officials across the New York region and even spurred calls for the first bear hunt in New Jersey in three decades.

But these officials emphasized that bear attacks on people remain exceedingly rare, and that this was the first time in memory that a wild bear had mauled a human to death in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut.

Officials said that most bears still tend to stick to the woods, though run-ins with humans have become more common as the bear population has increased and development has encroached on their habitats.

`An isolated case'

"It's an isolated case," said Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, adding that bear attacks in New York generally occur only about once every five to 10 years. "We don't think it's a cause for concern, but people should take precautions."

A 155-pound male bear snatched a 5-month-old girl, Esther Schwimmer of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, from a stroller Aug. 19 outside her family's bungalow in Fallsburg, N.Y., and dragged her into the woods while neighbors gave chase. The bear dropped the baby, who died while being taken to the hospital. The bear was shot and killed by a Fallsburg police officer as it tried to climb a tree.

"This is a tragedy. We take it and pray that this shouldn't happen again," said Rabbi Hertz Frankel, a family friend. "You're afraid to drive, you might have an accident. A fire in the house, that could happen. But a bear, that is never heard of."

There are between 5,000 and 6,000 black bears living primarily around the Adirondacks, the Catskills and the Alleghenies in New York state, a number that has remained steady in recent years largely because of bear hunting. In 2001, 801 bears were killed during the fall hunting season, and an average of 722 bears have been killed each year during the past decade.

In New Jersey and Connecticut - states that do not allow bear hunting - the black bear population has been increasing sharply. There are about 1,900 bears in New Jersey, or nearly double the number from two years ago, state wildlife officials said. In Connecticut, where bears all but disappeared from the mid-1800s to the 1960s, the population has rebounded to more than 100, said Paul Rego, a state wildlife biologist.

But along with the growing bear population has come a sharp increase in bear sightings in residential areas and frequent complaints about bears rummaging through garbage cans and wandering boldly into homes in search of food. In New Jersey, the black bears have roamed from their primary habitat in the northwest corner of the state to as far south as the Pine Barrens. State wildlife officials received 1,538 complaints about bears from Jan. 1 through Aug. 10, compared with 1,276 for the same period last year.

Hunting protested

Two years ago, New Jersey became so concerned about the growing bear problems that it scheduled the first recreational bear hunt in more than 30 years. But the proposal stirred such an outcry that it was indefinitely postponed.

Nina Austenberg, regional director of the Humane Society of the United States, said that allowing hunting would not have prevented a bear attack like the one in Fallsburg. "Sports hunting for black bears is like shooting into a crowd to stop crime," she said.

More recently, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has adopted more stringent wildlife policies, trained 300 police officers and park rangers on how to respond to black bears, and produced more than 2 million brochures on avoiding conflicts with bears.

But increasingly, bears have been known to help themselves to food.

An examination of the bear from the recent attack revealed that its stomach contained a dozen plastic bags, some with peanut butter on them. "This bear has been feeding on garbage," concluded Ward Stone, the state pathologist.

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