Rewilding In New Jersey

It has been some time since we featured a story on rewilding, which occasionally involves iconic urban areas. New Jersey may not sound iconic, but it is the home to one of the masters of long form so we are happy to share this late great masterpiece of his:

Direct Eye Contact

The most sophisticated, most urban, most reproductively fruitful of bears.

Improbably, I developed a yearning, almost from the get-go, to see a bear someday in the meadow. While I flossed in the morning, looking north through an upstairs bathroom window, I hoped to see a bear come out of the trees. If this seems quixotic, it was. This was four miles from the campus of Princeton University, around which on all sides was what New Yorkers were calling a bedroom community. Deer were present in large familial groups, as they still are in even larger families. They don’t give a damn about much of anything, and when I walk down the driveway in the morning to pick up the newspaper I all but have to push them out of the way. Beforehand, of course, I have been upstairs flossing, looking down the meadow. No bears.

In 1966, in a conversation in Trenton with Lester MacNamara, the head of the state’s Division of Fish and Game, I learned that there were twenty-two wild bears in New Jersey. Most lived on or near Kittatinny Mountain, in Sussex County, up the Delaware River. Sussex was once under a vertical kilometre of ice, and it looks it. It looks like Vermont. Kittatinny is actually a component of one very long mountain that runs, under various names, from Alabama to Newfoundland as the easternmost expression of the folded-and-faulted, deformed Appalachians. Through Sussex County, it carries the Appalachian Trail. New Jersey bears are best off there, and they know they are best off there, but they are as curious as they are hungry, and they range widely looking for mates. MacNamara happened to learn, while I was with him in his office, that a farmer in Pottersville had shot and killed a bear up a tree, and MacNamara, on his telephone, was shouting mad. Twenty-one.

Pottersville is in Hunterdon County, and Hunterdon is the county next to Mercer, and Mercer is where I am. In 1980, a bear came through Hunterdon and into Mercer, skirted Princeton, and somehow crossed U.S. 1 and I-195 within five miles of the center of Trenton. In Yardville, a cop shot and killed it. New Jersey’s bear biologists would have preferred to get there first, shoot the bear with Ketaset, put it in a pickup after it conked out, and take it to Kittatinny before it woke up.

So please note: my ambition to see a bear in my back yard has not been completely insane. By the latest estimate, there are about twenty-five hundred bears in New Jersey now. Wild bears. Black bears. And perhaps not a few that have immigrated from Pennsylvania in search of a better life. In recent years, bears have been spotted in every New Jersey county.

Nassau Street is the main street of Princeton—town on one side, university on the other—and a bear has been seen there, close by the so-called “tree streets” (Chestnut, Walnut, Linden, Maple, Spruce, and Pine). I grew up on Maple Street. If I wanted to see a bear, I should have stayed put. Marshall Provost, a longtime friend of mine who recently left the Princeton police force to become a federal police officer in the District of Columbia, has told me that Princeton’s official attitude toward bears is “Just leave them alone.” He nonetheless investigated the Tree Street Bear: “I walked within ten feet of it. It was leaning against a tree.” Of another bear, he said, “It was all over Princeton. That guy travelled.” As did still another bear last June 19th. Nick Sutter, the town’s police chief, told me that it was seen at the Hun School and around Princeton’s Ascot-class neighborhoods—Elm Road, Constitution Hill—and on Chambers Street, in the middle of town. Princeton’s benign and respectful disposition toward wild bears is not in any way unusual or special in this exemplary state, whose municipalities, counties, and state agencies come on in choral unison about what to do when bears show up in your back yard.

“Just let ’em go.”

“Just leave ’em alone.”

“Be cautious,” an online article about Lawrence Township (Mercer County) said. “A black bear was spotted Sunday on Surrey Drive.” In Laurel Run Village, a development in Bordentown (Burlington County), a bear stood up six feet tall, looked around, and went off into the woodlot next door.

Essex, New Jersey’s second-densest county, with a population per square mile that outdenses the Netherlands, has had a number of recent sightings of wild black bears. On Memorial Day weekend, 2016, in West Caldwell, a bear was seen “in the area of Herbert Place and Eastern Parkway,” according to a piece by Eric Kiefer on the Web site Patch. The bear, or another bear, next played Verona, “on Crestmont Road in the area of Claremont Ave.” This was fourteen miles from the editorial offices of The New Yorker, which look out across the Hudson, over the Meadowlands, and far into Essex County.

Read the whole article here.

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