WEST MILFORD, N.J. (AP) — A black bear believed to have attacked and killed a hiker over the weekend likely was looking for food and was circling the victim's body when sheriff's officers and wildlife officials killed it, officials said Monday.
The approximately 300-pound male bear was killed with two rifle blasts and is being examined at a state lab for more clues as to why it may have pursued the group of five hikers, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection said at a news conference. Killed was Darsh Patel, 22, of Edison, who had come to the Apshawa Preserve, about 45 miles northwest of New York City, on Sunday with four friends.
State and local officials stressed that bear attacks are rare even in a region of the state that may have as many as 2,400 bruins in its dense forests. DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said the attack was the first fatal bear-human encounter on record in New Jersey.
"This is a rare occurrence," West Milford police Chief Timothy Storbeck said, noting that his department receives six to 12 calls per week regarding bears, usually involving them breaking into trash cans.
According to Storbeck, the five friends noticed the bear beginning to follow them and ran, splitting up as they did. When they couldn't find Patel, they called police, who found his body about two hours later.
The bear was about 30 yards from the body and circling, Storbeck said, and wouldn't leave even after officers tried to scare it away by making loud noises and throwing sticks and stones.
Kelcey Burguess, principal biologist and leader of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife's black bear project, said the bear could have been predisposed to attack but more likely was looking for food, particularly since wildlife officials believe there is a current shortage of the acorns and berries that bears eat. The hikers had granola bars and water with them, Storbeck said.
The bear had not been tagged and therefore was not known to state wildlife officials, Ragonese said.
Officials don't believe the hikers provoked the bear but they may have showed their inexperience when they decided to run. The safest way to handle a bear encounter is to move slowly and not look the bear in the eye, Ragonese said.
Laurie Coyle, who said she just moved into a neighborhood that borders the preserve, hadn't heard about the bear attack.
"It's shocking and it's so sad," she said Monday as she sat in her car at the entrance to the preserve. "I take the kids here after school for exercise. It's really scary."
Ragonese said bear-human encounters in New Jersey have slowly decreased in recent years, likely due to the DEP's introduction of a state-sponsored bear hunt and efforts to educate the public on how not to attract the bruins.
Patel was a senior information technology and informatics major at Rutgers University, the school said in a statement.