MILLVILLE - Beverly Steward never expected to see a bear walking in her backyard, but one did just that Wednesday.
State reports show that an unexpected visit by a bear, which has become common in North Jersey, is now part of a growing trend in southern New Jersey.
Steward lives on the 300 block of Cedar Street, a busy road about a half-mile from downtown. Behind her home, however, trees thicken around several houses whose backyards are adjacent to hundreds of acres of woodland that bracket the Millville Airport and New Jersey Motorsports Park.
Anything, it seems, could live back there.
On Tuesday, she let her two dogs out at about 9 a.m. They quickly started barking and chased something out of her yard, she said. She checked on them, then went inside and had some tea. She soon heard them barking again, accompanied by an undoglike "yipe."
"They were brave and they were scared for their lives," she said.
Some animal had apparently climbed over the 6-foot chain-link fence and helped itself to dog food in a bowl, then ambled toward the front of the building where her husband had thrown out some leftover pizza in the trash the previous night.
The dogs cornered it in her backyard. Steward called off her dogs and placed them in their outdoor pen. Then, using a small section of fence, she cordoned off part of her yard for the animal. The visitor escaped, and only then did she dare to look at it: coarse, thick, black fur clambering over the back fence and disappearing into the underbrush, where it smashed down the vegetation in its efforts to flee.
A quick Internet search and a visit to the city's animal-control office confirmed her suspicions: black bear.
"I was only two feet away from it, so I was scared," Steward said Thursday, standing a short distance from the tracks that remained in her sandy side yard.
But she is far from the only person to see a bear in southern New Jersey. The state Division of Fish and Wildlife's July 1 annual report on the status of the state's bears says their population is continuing to grow in the Garden State.
In 1995, the report said, bears were confined to the far northwestern corner of the state, where thick trees and rugged mountains make it "a textbook place for bears," which is the title of a New Yorker story by author John McPhee on the state's bear-control efforts.
When the state updated the report in 2000, it found that bears had spread south, with first-ever regional sightings in Estell Manor in Atlantic County and Millville in Cumberland County.
By 2009, bears had become even more prevalent, with sightings reported in almost every town in the central and northern parts of the state, except for islands and densely populated urban centers. That year, bear sightings were reported in 10 towns in Atlantic County, as well as three towns in Cape May, five in Cumberland and five in southern Ocean counties.
The state Division of Fish and Wildlife said it received 3,035 calls last year regarding black bears, the report said. While 235 calls were classified as a bear being a threat to life or property, the vast majority of the callers did not report dangerous behavior. However, the total number of calls is more than 50 percent higher than the 2,075 calls that the report said the agency received in 2003.
The vast majority of the calls came from northwestern New Jersey, where bears are endemic, said Larry Ragonese, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman. That part of New Jersey is the estimated home to about 3,400 bears, he said.
However, there have been bear sightings in all 21 counties.
"Bears normally live in the woods," he said, explaining the difference. "We just don't see them."
This year has seen a number of high-profile New Jersey bears, including a report in the London Telegraph on "bear number 6131," a young male that has traveled throughout central New Jersey fruitlessly searching for a mate.
New Jersey has actively managed its black bears since 1953, the state report said. The techniques include researching and monitoring the animals' habits, while using a variety of lethal and nonlethal techniques against so-called "nuisance bears."
The state also has hosted bear hunts in 2003, 2005 and 2010, while making it illegal to intentionally feed bears in 2002.
The report said that the state euthanized 31 bears in 2010 for behavior that threatened life or property, while capturing and releasing another 49 that had gotten too close to humans, frightening them with yellow cur dogs to adversely condition them.
Still, the report said bears generally returned to where they had been captured within 17 days.
The report also identified the best habitats for bears. In this region, those were generally the undeveloped woodlands of the Pine Barrens and other rural areas. There, place names such as Bear Swamp in Downe Township, Cumberland County, or Bear Swamp Hill near the Chatsworth section of Woodland Township, Burlington County, testify to how the animals were once prevalent until hunters reduced their numbers.
Still, for people such as Steward, bears remain unexpected and unwanted visitors.
"I was scared, I was," she said. "I'm going to keep an eye on the area. I'm going to take all my trash in the backyard and keep it locked up. Hopefully that will be it."
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