At least 20 times in 2018, a black bear entered a New Jersey home. At least another nine times, a bear attempted to enter a home but failed.

And hundreds of others were reported causing a nuisance or some type of damage to private property.

So when bears are leaving their winter dens and the state is offering tips on how to avoid an encounter, you may want to listen.

According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, black bears are emerging from their dens after a period of winter dormancy known as torpor, during which they may lose up to a fifth of their body weight.

The bears need to restore that weight in time for the mating season, which begins in late May.

Black bears are mostly present in the northwestern counties of Sussex, Warren, Passaic and Morris, but they've been sighted in all 21 counties, DEP said.

During spring, one of their primary natural food sources is skunk cabbage, which grows along edges of rivers and streams, and other wetlands. Beyond other natural food sources such as grasses and insects, bears may also feed on the flesh of dead animals.

"Bears are by nature wary of people. However, animals attracted to neighborhoods may learn to associate people with food," said Dave Golden, acting director of DEP's Division of Fish and Wildlife. "When bears make that connection they may become aggressive, cause property damage or seek handouts from people."

Intentional feeding of a bear is not only dangerous, it's illegal and carries a fine of up to $1,000.

To minimize encounters with bears, Division of Fish and Wildlife recommends:

  • Secure trash and eliminate easy-to-reach food sources, including low-hanging bird feeders.
  • Use certified bear-resistant garbage containers, if possible. Otherwise, use tight-fitting lids on your containers.
  • Wash garbage containers frequently to remove odors.
  • Avoid feeding birds when bears are active.
  • Install electric fencing to protect crops, beehives and livestock.

Those who encounter a black bear are advised to remain calm and never run away. Avoid eye contact and back away slowly. If the bear does not leave the area, or advances, individuals are advised to make themselves look and sound as big as possible by waving their arms or yelling, for example.

"Few things would trigger a bear to become aggressive," said Jason Carter, owner of Fur and Feathers Wildlife Control in Sussex County. "If its young are being threatened, a lot of times a mother bear will retaliate to protect its young."

Carter said society has essentially created a habitat in which bears don't feel threatened.

In 2018, 883 bear encounters were reported to DEP. That's down from 971 in 2017. DEP's numbers do not include instances in which the state was not contacted.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.