Clashes between humans, animals rise as suburbs encroach upon wildlife
TINA SUSMAN Newsday
October 12, 2003 Sunday
West Milford, N.J. -- Dinner was on the stove and the day was drawing to a close in the woodsy hills of West Milford. It was a perfect, late-spring evening until a black bear lumbered onto the porch of Patrick and Kristine Flynn's log cabin, sniffed the pork chops sizzling inside and leaned his furry frame against the screen door separating him from the Flynns and their 2-year-old daughter, Samantha.
To hear the Flynns tell it, the hulking bear posed a clear danger, so Patrick Flynn grabbed his shotgun and felled it. To hear prosecutors tell it, Flynn fired into the back of the bear as it fled toward a thicket of trees. Now, Flynn is charged with illegally shooting the bear, a case that underscores not only suburban New Jersey's battle with its burgeoning bear population, but also nature's battle with America's burgeoning suburbs.
From California to New York, residents living in newly developed areas are clashing with everything from cougars and deer to Canada geese and mute swans. According to the Brookings Institution think tank, urbanized land in the United States increased nearly 50% between 1982 and 1997, from about 51 million acres to 76 million acres. Nowhere is that more evident than in New Jersey, the most crowded state, where population density is 1,134 people per square mile compared with the national average of 79.6.
Formerly rural areas such as West Milford, once a lakeside summer retreat, now boast malls, schools and neighborhoods populated by people drawn to the idyllic surroundings and relatively low housing costs. As the population has grown, so has development, putting the squeeze on black bears common to the area and leading to human-bear clashes.
So common have the encounters become -- 54 home break-ins by bears this year in New Jersey -- that in July the state approved the first bear hunt in 33 years. From Dec. 8 to 13, licensed hunters with special permits will be allowed to shoot bears.
Two animal rights groups have asked a state appeals court to block the hunt, alleging it would endanger people and was based on questionable counting of bears. The state's Department of Environmental Protection says that at least 1,350 and as many as 3,200 bears are in New Jersey.
'They have to go'
Indeed, children waiting at bus stops carry whistles and horns to scare off bears that sometimes come near, and a "bear crossing" sign on the main road into town warns drivers to watch for the animals. The local police blotter includes several bear encounters, in addition to Flynn's incident June 5.
"They're beautiful, but they have to go -- not all, but a few," said Jack Mann, a West Milford resident who blames overdevelopment and human ignorance for bear problems. Too many outsiders move to rural areas, think the bears are cute, feed them and then get scared when the bears respond as bears will, by coming back for more, Mann said. "They're building up too much here, and it ain't fair to the animals. They need a place to call their own."