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.

Black bear (Henry King, Getty Images}
Black bear (Henry King, Getty Images}

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.

"Typically when you see predatory behaviors by black bears it’s a result of a lack of food, it could be just in the nature of this animal, we have one isolated animal, again all black bears do not act this way, they’re still a very safe animal to be around," Burguess said.

Burguess said some bears have become used to being around human beings.

"We do have bears unfortunately that are habituated, they do follow people around looking for food, panhandling," he said, adding that even though bears are predators, human attacks are rare. "I mean 99.999 percent of the time these folks have encounters with bears, it’s because they have food on them and the bear’s just looking for food."

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.

"You must remain calm, do not run, you want to make sure the bear has an escape route, you want to avoid direct eye contact with the bear, back up slowly, speak with a low, assertive voice. Don’t panic," Ragonese said. "If you encounter an aggressive bear however we want you to call your local police, call 911.You can report aggressive bears to the DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife hotline number, 877-WARN-DEP."

He 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.

The Apshawa Preserve is a 576-acre natural area used for hiking and bird watching, located about 45 miles northwest of New York City.

Townsquare Media's David Matthau contributed to this report.


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