ROCKAWAY TOWNSHIP — The leader of a Boy Scout troop was attacked by a bear while leading three scouts through the woods Sunday afternoon, according to authorities.
The unidentified man was airlifted to Morristown Memorial Hospital with what authorities described as non-life threatening injuries, Rockaway police said in a statement.
Police were called to the scene around 12:26 p.m., when one of the scouts reported that the man had been attacked after entering a cave off one of the hiking trails surrounding the Splitrock Reservoir.
Local officers and firefighters were joined by a state police helicopter to search the 625-acre area straddling the Rockaway-Kinnelon border, using signals from a scout’s cell phone to locate the group, according to police.
Nearly 500 bears have been killed in this year’s hunt as of Friday but still the rate is below what biologists say is needed to keep the black bear population stable — and to stop it from pushing out further.
Rockaway Mayor Michael Dachisen said the three scouts were not injured during the incident, and were taken to township police headquarters before being released to family members.
Police declined to identify the leader, saying his family had yet to be notified. The scouts are members of Troop 69 based in Boonton Township, according to Rockaway Police Chief Martin McParland.
The bear has yet to be captured, though representatives of the Department of Environmental Protection will be setting traps in an attempt to locate it, the chief added.
Charlottesburg Road was blocked off for nearly a mile around the reservoir as authorities scoured the area this afternoon. A helicopter and emergency vehicles sat in a field about a mile from the scene of the attack.
The attack comes amid lingering debate over how to handle the state’s bear population, spurred by the four-day extension of an annual hunt for the animals across North Jersey.
DEP officials and other proponents argue that the steps are necessary to counter increased interactions between humans and the species — including the state’s first fatal bear attack in 150 years in 2014 – while animal rights and conservation activists contend that it is both inhumane and ineffective.
Bob Considine, of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the Division of Fish and Wildlife had not yet been able to interview the victim but was hoping to do so today. The division was on the scene, he said.
The fifth consecutive bear hunt that began last Monday in the state’s northwestern region has attracted a flurry of reader comments.
Patrick Esposito, who lives down Charlottesburg Road, told NJ Advance Media that bears sometimes approach him but usually do not cause a problem. He said people often camp by the reservoir.
Esposito said news of the attack was “a little unnerving.”
Jeff Tittel, president of the N.J. Sierra Club, said many people do not know how to back away from a bear slowly, which makes the bear think the people are prey.
“The day after the hunt, there’s a bear-human incident, so it just shows that the whole purpose of the hunt was a failure — that it’s really [more] about having a trophy hunt than it is about managing bears,” Tittel said.