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|Op Ed: Gone Are the Days of Jellystone Park|
The following was published in the December 5, 2003 Newark Star Ledger. Clipping of the actual article
In August 2002, five-month old Ester Schwimmer was sleeping in her stroller a few miles north of New Jersey, outside a Fallsburg, New York bungalow colony. As her parents watched in horror, a black bear emerged from the nearby woods, pulled the infant head-first from her stroller, and ran off with the child in its mouth, apparently as intended food. After a chase by the parents, the bear released Ester from its jaws, but she died of her injuries a short time later.
Though media reports characterized the incident as “rare” and “atypical,” in fact there is a documented and growing trend of unprovoked, predatory black bear attacks on humans. According to recognized bear expert Professor Stephen Herrero of the University of Calgary, Canada, two-thirds of all fatal black bear attacks occurring during the last 100 years happened within about the past 30 years, and people were treated as prey in 90 percent of those attacks.
Based on data documenting this increase in black bear attacks, Herrero reversed a previous conclusion, published in a 1985 book, that black bear are essentially benevolent. “I have learned since the publication of the book that there is more involvement in serious injuries by black bears than I knew of at the time that I wrote the book,” stated Herrero while testifying as an expert witness in a black bear attack lawsuit brought by a teenage girl mauled and disfigured for life.
According to state wildlife officials, there have been more than 1,350 bear complaints so far this year, including 58 incidents in which bears actually broke into New Jersey homes -- nearly double the number of 2001 home break-ins. Livestock and pets have also been attacked or killed by bears more than 85 times so far this year. The estimated population of more than 3,000 bears now occupies 30% of the state, the prowling range having doubled since 1995.
While these statistics may surprise those who have never investigated the issue, documented New Jersey bear incidents have risen steadily for more than two decades. This is understandable given the complete absence of bear population control measures since 1970, when bear hunting was banned. The state’s bear management program since then has consisted essentially of bear tagging and monitoring, and dealing with problem bears on an individual basis. In the meanwhile, the bear population has grown virtually unchecked for 33 years.
The shock of Ester Schwimmer’s death last year first raised public awareness of the problem. Though concerns were initially calmed by the belief that the incident was isolated and unusual, this year’s widely publicized attack on a two-year-old Sparta boy -- and the string of dramatic attacks that followed -- demonstrated otherwise.
While sitting on an outdoor porch in May, the toddler was attacked by a bear that emerged from the woods and approached the house. The child’s mother intervened when she heard his screams and the bear retreated. Fortunately, the boy suffered only minor head injuries. But the incident and the ones that followed became a wake-up call that could not be ignored.
Citing exponential growth in New Jersey’s bear population and the need to safeguard the public from further attacks, state wildlife officials scheduled the first bear hunt in 33 years. Set to begin December 8, the six-day hunt has strict limitations and is intended to thin the bear population only moderately, not decimate it. The hunt will end early if conservation goals are met before the scheduled conclusion.
Even politicians usually opposed to hunting, like Governor James McGreevey, have acknowledged the need to quickly reduce the bear population to manageable levels as a public safety measure.
Opponents of the hunt simply dismiss the recent attacks and accuse wildlife officials of inventing statistics to justify a “trophy hunt.” They also claim that bear tagging, relocation and sterilization, as well as improved trash management, are effective solutions to the problem now threatening us.
Yet none of these approaches would provide immediate relief from bear overpopulation and the accompanying danger of attacks. Bear tagging is merely an identification and monitoring tool that does not affect population. Bear relocation, which requires large undeveloped wilderness not available here, just moves the problem, and bears often return even over great distances. Sterilization, which is expensive and unfunded, does nothing to address existing population and takes years to impact future population enough to lower attack risks. Better trash management will not change the behavior of numerous bears already conditioned to be aggressive around man-made food sources, which are a present danger to nearby humans.
Unlike these measures, the limited hunt will have an immediate and lasting impact on the bear population, thereby lowering the risk of further attacks. It is the only conservation tool available that will quickly and effectively address a problem long neglected and now at the breaking point. The inescapable result is that human lives will be saved and our families will be safer.
—Scott L. Bach