Last Saturday, March 3, was World Wildlife Day. No doubt we all want to protect wildlife, but some folks—especially on the East Coast—are finding they have too much of a good thing.
As I wrote in the magazine last year, trees are making a comeback in New England and other eastern states, and that’s creating more space for animals. More efficient farming methods and a general migration of food production to the Midwest have resulted in the reforestation of about 80% of the land once cleared for agriculture, helped along by environmental laws such as those protecting wetlands. The change has improved water quality, lessened erosion, and renewed habitat. Along with bald eagles, deer, moose, beavers, and gray seals, black bears have been especially successful. In Connecticut, half of which is now forested, people reported 6,700 bear sightings in 2016.
In an article in the March 5 issue of the New Yorker, John McPhee points out that the same thing is happening in New Jersey. In 1966, a few years after he built his house in a rural area near the campus of Princeton University, the state had exactly 22 wild bears; the Division of Fish and Game, as it was then called, was aware of every single one. Today, New Jersey has an estimated 2,500 bears. Pennsylvania has something close to 20,000. Yet human encounters with them have been dropping in recent years; perhaps the bears are becoming warier of venturing into human territory, as well they might, given that some states are reintroducing bear hunting as a way to manage their numbers.
The current New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has published advice for dealing with bears: “Never run from a bear,” it reads in part. “Instead, slowly back away. To scare the bear away, make loud noises by yelling, banging on pans, or using an air horn. Make yourself look as big as possible by waving your arms. If you are with someone else, stand close together with your arms raised above your head.”
A bear standing on its hind legs or even moving closer to you, the state’s guidance says, doesn’t necessarily indicate threatening behavior; it’s probably just trying to get a better view of its situation or possibly to detect ambient scents. Even a “bluff charge” by the bear might not be the last thing you ever see. “Stand your ground, avoid direct eye contact, then slowly back away and do not run,” the Division of Fish and Wildlife advises. The “do not run” part is repeated several times in a couple of short paragraphs. The state also advises families with children to have a “Bear Plan” in place—much like a fire escape plan—with emergency egresses mapped out.
Reforestation in parts of Europe has also occasionally had unexpected consequences, such as attracting non-native birds that drive out other species or, if the woods are not managed well, contributing to wildfires. But no matter what his neighbors think of the bears, McPhee notes in his article, he’s still hoping, half a century after his move, to see one up close. Even if you’re nowhere near New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or Connecticut, I’d recommend reading his article; he’s an excellent and entertaining writer.