Rutgers Student, 22, Dies Hiking With Friends in New Jersey: Officials

A 299-pound black bear attacked and killed a 22-year-old Rutgers student who had been hiking with friends in a northern New Jersey nature preserve Sunday, wildlife and school officials say.

It was the state's first deadly bear attack on a human. 

West Milford police say Darsh Patel and four friends from Edison were hiking in the Apshawa Preserve, a 576-acre natural area used for hiking and bird watching, when they encountered the bear.

Police say the group became frightened and ran in different directions. They noticed Patel was missing when they regrouped. A search team found his body a short time later.

Officials said Patel had bite and claw marks on his body that indicated he'd been attacked by the bear. The bear was found 30 to 40 yards from Patel and euthanized at the scene, officials said. Authorities said it was 4 years old. The animal is at a lab where authorities will conduct a necropsy to confirm the bear killed Patel and why.

Perhaps it was diseased or rabid, for example, said Kelcey Burguess, a black bear biologist with the New Jersey Department of Fish, Game and Wildlife. Burguess said it is "very rare" for a bear to have rabies, however. It's more likely the bear was looking for food, he said.

The hikers told authorities the bear appeared to be following them; they were all carrying granola bars and water. The number of acorns in the woods where the bear was is far lower than it should be at this time of year, Burguess said. The bear was also stalking the body when police arrived, and Burguess said it's common for black bears to guard their food sources.

But such attacks are rare.

"You have a better chance of dying on the way back on 287 than having this happen," Burguess said.

Rutgers said in a statement that Patel was a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in information technology and informatics. Patel's family asked for privacy.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese said bears are endemic to the region and have been sighted in all 21 counties, but the number of human encounters with the beasts has decreased in recent years due to population management and hiker education.

Ragonese said there have been no fatal bear attacks in the state in history. New Jersey has recorded about one instance a year of bears being aggressive to humans, or in rare cases, swiping or swatting at people, but none of those cases have been deadly, authorities said.

"What happened this week is almost unheard of," said Ragonese.

More frequent are bear sightings; the state gets six to 12 calls a week reporting a bear sighting or bears eating garbage from cans sitting on neighborhood streets, authorities say. Anyone who encounters a bear should speak slowly and avoid panicking, Ragonese said. Do not run, but calmly walk ahead, he said, and avoid feeding the animals.

There are between 2,000 and 3,000 bears in New Jersey during this time of year, Burguess said. About 200 to 300 are killed during an annual hunt in December. West Milford, which is part of the hunt area, has a particularly high number of bears per square mile compared with other counties nationwide. 

No hunting is permitted in the nature preserve where Patel was attacked. 

Follow Jen Maxfield on Twitter @JenMaxfield4NY

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