By LORI COMSTOCK / lcomstock@njherald.com

WEST MILFORD — Several bear activists are condemning the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for their use of snare traps to capture bears for research purposes after a West Milford resident, on her evening bike ride, found a bear cub screaming and tugging after it had been captured.

“It was horrifying; it's just torture,” said Shari McAtee, who was riding her bike around 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, when she heard a loud noise. She investigated and about a half mile into the woods on Schoolhouse Road she found the cub, which she estimated weighed about 40 pounds. McAtee video recorded the distressed bear on her cell phone, showing it pulling on the cable attached to its leg that had been tied about three feet away on a nearby tree.

“I had no idea what was going on. We are near Clinton Road, so I was thinking maybe this was some sort of horrible joke or worship of some sort,” McAtee said.

McAtee said she called 911 and a few friends who are fellow bear activists.

Her friends and two West Milford police officers arrived along with a security guard with Newark's Pequannock Watershed area, which encompasses portions of Morris, Passaic and Sussex counties. The police officers removed the restrained bear from the tree, McAtee said, but the cable remained on the bear's leg.

McAtee said everyone dispersed after the bear was released from the tree — still with the cable attached to its leg — but on Monday morning around 8 a.m., she returned to the site and found the cub caught in some brush and crying.

Around 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 9, she saw DEP staff come out to the scene, tranquilize the bear and release the trap from its leg, McAtee said.

Caryn Shinske, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said via email that the department was notified the bear had been released so DEP staff went to the site, tracked the bear and captured it. They removed the cable, tagged the bear and released it unharmed, she said.

The division, she said, is “investigating” the bear's release from the restraint but she did not go into further detail.

McAtee said she expressed concerns to the DEP officials who responded that she believed the bear had been trapped for nearly 24 hours, since she recalled seeing DEP workers in the vicinity around 11 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Shinske told the New Jersey Herald that Division of Fish and Wildlife staff check traps at least once every 24 hours, but may check sooner if a report comes in of an animal capture.

But McAtee believes keeping a bear tied up for 24 hours, or what she thinks may be more, is torture.

“What if someone tied your leg to a tree and you tried moving back and forth and had no idea what was going on with no food and water?” McAtee said.

The Aldrich foot snare is the main method used by the state for trapping and tagging bears, about 150 to 200 in a given year, Larry Herrighty, director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife, told the New Jersey Herald last year. The device, which consists of a spring-activated foot snare, is typically placed in a hole and covered with leaves and then fastened to a steel cable, which usually is attached to a nearby tree to hold it in place.

McAtee said the trapped cub's mother was nearby on Sunday, along with another young bear, both of whom were “pacing around,”

While Herrighty told the New Jersey Herald in the interview last year that snares are always accompanied by signage to warn would-be hikers or passers-by of the trap, McAtee claims she did not see one.

McAtee expressed concerns that snares can severely mutilate and injure bears and said she would like to see them banned.

“(The Division) is torturing these bears, trapping them and leaving them there,” she said, adding that if the division puts out snares, they should be watching them at all times and be right there when a bear is caught.

While she doesn't believe New Jersey “has the population to hunt bears,” she does think there could be better alternatives to control the bear population, such as contraceptives.

In a statement released Thursday, the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, a self-described grassroots coalition of outdoorsmen, condemned the actions of McAtee and her fellow bear activists, including Angi Metler, who is the director of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, for “interfering” with the Division of Fish and Wildlife's research.

“This is a great example of how violent anti-hunting extremist organizations interfere with valid and badly-needed scientific research,” said NJOA spokesman Cody McLaughlin, “On the one hand, extremists harass Division Of Fish and Wildlife scientists while performing their essential research and promote a ban on traps that assist the division in such research.”

The state, in addition to testing the bears for ticks and various other diseases, uses the ratio of tagged bears taken during the annual hunt as a gauge of hunter success rates and to guide its ongoing bear management programs.

McAtee, however, says there is “no justifiable science basis to study bears for the purpose of hunting.”

Lori Comstock can also be reached on Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH, on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/LoriComstockNJH or by phone: 973-383-1194.