Fatal bear attack in North Jersey was first in 150 years

     A 200-pound black bear roams near a picnic bench in the wooded back yard of a home in Mountainside, N.J., in this file photo (Mike Derer/AP photo)

    A 200-pound black bear roams near a picnic bench in the wooded back yard of a home in Mountainside, N.J., in this file photo (Mike Derer/AP photo)

    A hike through northern New Jersey’s Apshawa Preserve turned deadly for 22-year-old Darsh Patel as the Rutgers University senior became the state’s first bear-related fatality since 1852.

    West Milford Police Captain Richard Fiorilla said his officers were called to the preserve Sunday after four hikers reported they couldn’t find their friend. They had all fled the trail when a black bear showed up.

    “As the bear started to approach, they started to retreat down the trail from where they came,” he said. “As they moved quicker, the bear moved quicker, and that’s when the men went into a full run trying to get away from the bear.”

    After a more than two-hour search, Fiorella said the team found Patel’s body, marked by bites and claws. The bear, which was still nearby, was shot dead by a police officer after authorities could not  get it to leave the area.

    Lawrence Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said bear attacks are extremely rare even though the animals can be found in all counties of the state, and are especially common in the northwest. He advises hikers not to run if they see one.

    “If you do encounter a bear, you make the bear aware of your presence,” he said. “You speak in an assertive voice, you sing, you clap your hands, make loud noises, and make sure the bear has an escape route.”

    An autopsy will confirm Patel’s cause of death. The bear’s carcass is also being examined to see if it had an illness — such as rabies — that could explain its aggressiveness. The 3- to 4-year-old male bear weighed 299 pounds and had not been tagged for prior nuisance behavior.

    The West Milford police are now asking for help in identifying two hikers who spoke with Patel and his friends before the bear’s appearance on the trail.

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