Bear sightings in New Jersey used to be rare outside of what’s considered “bear country,” which is in the northwest part of the state. But increasingly, bears are showing up in populated parts of Central and South Jersey.

In recent years, bears have been sighted in every county in the state. Bears are frequently showing up in the suburbs, occasionally even entering homes and vehicles.

“Bears have expanded their territory," Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said. "It’s really nothing unusual for bears to be turning up in residential areas and in other parts of the state. We’ve seen urban bears in some pretty developed communities where there’s really no habitat around for them to dodge into or escape to.”

Hajna says younger males will set out looking for their own territory because they can’t compete with older established males.

“They will follow stream corridors and all of a sudden they find they have taken a wrong turn and they’ll end up in a residential neighborhood,” he said.

Even though bears may be spreading out, that doesn't mean there are more of them.

Through the first half of this year, the overall number of reported bear incidents is down 4.7 percent, bear sightings are down 8.67 percent and bear damage and nuisance reports are down 2.34 percent compared to last year, state environmental officials said.

DEP data shows for the first seven and a half months of this year there have been 411 bear sightings, compared to 450 sightings during the same period last year. So far in 2016 there have been 711 bear damage and nuisance reports filed, compared to 728 reports during the same time in 2015.

So what should you do if you spot a bear on your block?

Hajna recommends contacting authorities right away to make them aware.

You should make sure your garbage is in a secure area like a garage, a shed or in your basement.

“Also take your bird feeder down or make sure it’s hung very high and make sure you clean up any seed that’s dropped on the ground,” he said.

Hajna says it’s always important to observe the bear from the safety of your kitchen window or some other enclosed area.

“Unfortunately, we have seen people go outside in their backyards trying to shoot videos of the bear. This is not a good idea,” he said.

He also pointed out it is never advisable to turn and run from a bear because “you can trigger a predatory instinct in a bear."

"It’s the last thing you want to do," he said.

"This is obviously easier said than done if you’re looking at a 400-pound animal," he acknowledged. "But you really need to just stand your ground. Look at the bear but not directly in the eyes. Look sort of off to the side.”

He explained this way the bear will know that you’re not trying to challenge it.

He said in addition to standing your ground, “you need to make yourself look as big as possible, raise your arms, wave, shout. If you have a whistle, blow the whistle. And if it still looks like the bear isn’t backing down, throw rocks and large stick at him to try and chase him away.”

More often than not, the bear will move on, but Hajna said “once in a while the bear may stand up on its hind legs, pop its jaws and make huffing noises, which is called a bluff charge, a sign the bear is challenging you but not intending to attack.

"So what you want to do is just slowly back away. Make sure the bear has an escape route so it doesn’t feel like it’s cornered in any way.”

In those very rare instances where that doesn’t work, and a bear decides to come after you, “fight back, kick, punch it in the face, try to gouge at its eyes.”

He said the idea of playing dead to survive a bear attack is a myth, it doesn’t work. You have to fight back in order to survive.

We’ve been fortunate in New Jersey because there have been very few documented bear attacks, and only one death in the past 100 years.

Hajna stressed you should always try to steer clear of a bear, and never become involved in any kind of confrontation unless you have no other choice.

Contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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