Black bears have been making headlines lately in the eastern U.S.—but it’s not good news.
This week, a young black bear was found dead in New York City’s Central Park. The six-month-old female had been likely killed by a car, though how she got into the heart of the biggest city in the United States is still a mystery, according to news reports.
And in September, a black bear killed a hiker in a New Jersey nature preserve about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from New York City—the first fatal bear attack in the state in 150 years.
The incidents come as the black bear population has steadily grown throughout the U.S. Northeast. National Geographic spoke with Brooke Maslo, a wildlife specialist at Rutgers University with extensive knowledge of black bears, about the recent events and what to do if you encounter a bear.
How many bears are there in New York and New Jersey, by your estimate?
[In New Jersey], it really ranges anywhere from 2,800 and 3,200 individuals. They’ve been steadily increasing since we’ve been monitoring their population [over the past decade]. Back in 2003 there [were] about 1,500 estimated, and it’s been increasing since then. (See National Geographic’s bear videos.)
Can you speculate on the likelihood that the bear found in Central Park may have somehow been able to get there on its own?
It is highly unlikely—near impossible—that a bear of any age would wind up in Central Park on its own. Bears are capable of traveling great distances—we’ve seen up to 50 miles [80 kilometers]—but there are no corridors through which a bear could travel into Central Park.
Black bears do not like leaving the cover of dense vegetation, and they certainly wouldn’t be attracted to the noise, lights, and chaos of NYC. Further, a bear of that size would not be without its mother.
How unusual is the bear attack in New Jersey?
A bear fatality is exceptionally rare. I would argue that you still have a much higher chance of being struck by a car or any of the other common fatalities. (Also see “Bear Mauling in Wyoming: Why Do They Attack?”)
For the most part, bears view us as predators, and they have a fear of humans. In general when a human encounters a bear or a bear encounters a human the bear is going to flee.
Is there any reason to believe that there was something wrong with the bear in New Jersey medically, or can you speculate what happened here?
[Considering] the evidence surrounding this fatality it’s pretty clear that this was a predatory attack. Bears are expanding their range, and somewhat rapidly, so just by probability, if you have increased encounters by humans and bears, then you’ll have an increased likelihood of negative interactions.
What advice would you give to anyone who encounters a black bear in nature?
If you’re out and there [are] bears around, you want to make your presence known. You want the bear to detect you and move away from you. As long as they have an escape route they’re fine. (See “Maulings by Bears: What’s Behind the Recent Attacks?“)
It is rare that [an attack like this] would occur, but it is true that the population is expanding and I think that the more people understand about species behavior and biology [the better].
When you get in a car you know what the dangers are and you’re prepared for them. If you walk in the woods in known bear areas you need to be aware of your surroundings and need to be informed.
For more information on black bears in New Jersey and bear-human interactions, see Maslo’s page “Living With Black Bears in New Jersey.”
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.
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