Den-to-den black bear census has its dangers

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HACKENSACK, N.J. (AP) - Black bear No. 8141 doesn’t know it yet, but she’s about to get shot in her fat rump.

She is sleeping now, deep in her cave, guarding two cubs, maybe three. She will awaken to the whoosh of an air gun and the sting of a tranquilizer dart.

What she decides to do next could mess up Kelcey Burguess’s whole day.

“Things could get real exciting here in a minute,” says Burguess, standing just uphill from the den. “If she runs, she might run you over. It’s wise to step out of the way.”

Burguess is a biologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. For three months every winter, this is his primary job. Working with a team of biologists and technicians, he crawls into dens with sleeping black bears. He shoots them with tranquilizers. The bears leave their dens, either sleeping and pulled out slowly by the humans, or awake, quickly and of their own accord. Once outside, the bears are measured, weighed, and tested for disease.

Most important, the bears are counted. This makes Burguess’s work controversial, since the census is intertwined with New Jersey’s annual bear hunt. By counting a portion of the state’s bears, biologists determine how many of their cubs survived the summer, and estimate how fast the population is growing. Come December and the state’s six-day bear season, this combination of science and guesswork helps the Fish and Wildlife division decide how many bears may be shot by hunters.

To some people, that makes Burguess a hero.

“Jumping into dens full of black bears? It’s amazing the work Kelcey Burguess does,” John Rogalo, chairman of the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, tells The Record of Woodland Park (http://bit.ly/1flKBnu).

To others, he is anything but.

Kelcey has a passion for killing,” says Angi Metler, executive director of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey. “They do the census only to make sure there are enough bears to kill. It is inhumane.”

No matter which side is right, both sides agree the problem is not the bears. It’s the humans. There were 3,438 black bears living in the hills of northwest New Jersey in 2009, according to an estimate by the Department of Environmental Protection. Four hunting seasons later the population is down to about 2,500, Burguess says.

Even with 8.8 million people, New Jersey still has plenty of food and habitat for bears, which is why the species has been spotted in every county in the state.

“Biologically, we could handle a lot more bears,” Burguess says.

But biology isn’t the only factor, of course. Many residents and municipalities in bear country oppose measures that would require them to place household garbage in bear-resistant cans. Even after the housing meltdown and subsequent recession, New Jersey continues to build suburban developments deep inside some of the state’s best bear habitats. This combination of proximity and easy access to human food increases the likelihood that bears and humans will meet.

A resident in Roxbury returned home with her daughters last September to find a momma bear and her cubs playing on her backyard swing set. Photos of the cute romping bears created an Internet sensation.

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