MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. - Billy Jordan is on the watch for bears on the Route 541 Mount Holly bypass.
It started in late October, around dusk at the Public Storage facility where Jordan is the property manager, when customer Linda DeGroat heard what she said was a "big growling sound" on the other side of a 6-foot privacy fence. Through the slats, she saw a big, black figure sitting.
"I said, 'Oh, hey, a bear,'" DeGroat said.
Her son, Matthew, 16, threw a branch over the fence, which the animal threw back before slamming into the wood barrier.
DeGroat, of Riverside, said the bear had hit the fence with such force that two storage sheds, one on each side of it, shook. "The locks rattled," she said.
In a wildlife version of sprawl, black bears are moving into southern New Jersey.
DeGroat's encounter in Burlington County was one of six reported sightings in Burlington, Gloucester, Atlantic and Cumberland counties in 2000.
The others were in Estell Manor, Millville, Monroe Township, Milmay and Chesterfield Township, according to the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Sitting on the roof
After DeGroat saw the bear, Jordan said, he spent two nights sitting on a roof or patrolling the fence at his facility, near the north branch of the Rancocas Creek, to see whether the animal had returned.
"I heard a lot of rustling, but being it was dark, I did not know if it was a dog or what," he said.
Jordan said he had not dropped his guard.
"I don't want to be out here in the dark, checking the property, and there's a bear standing right there," he said. "If he comes back, I'll be listening for him."
Bears are on the move now, having emerged from their dens in recent weeks to prepare for the mating season in June and July.
This spring, the farthest south any have been spotted is Jackson Township on the northern edge of the Pinelands in Ocean County.
The animals, the largest mammals in New Jersey, are moving out of their modern-era range in the hilly northwestern part of the state because of population pressures and sexual competition, said Patrick Carr, the wildlife division's black-bear biologist.
But the foray into South Jersey, he said, is not so much a venture into new territory for the bears as it is a return to land they roamed until 100 years ago.
There are about 1,150 bears in the 1,200-square-mile main range in Warren, Morris, Sussex and Passaic counties, Carr said.
"As bears become sexually mature - at 2 or 3 years of age - the adults drive them out," he said. "They [young bears] just pick a direction and go."
The animals, Carr said, tend to follow woods and waterways, generally avoiding humans but sometimes winding up in the wrong place - as one did last year when it wandered into Trenton.
The state has bear-response teams to handle such cases, usually capturing the animals and releasing them in wildlife management areas - as happened with the Trenton bear.
But not all bears are so lucky.
A 540-pound male in Sussex County recently had to be killed as a dangerous bear after it ripped the door off an attached garage in Frankford Township.
"We're talking about the car door of the garage," said Al Ivany, a spokesman for the Division of Fish and Game.
He said the problem was that the homeowner had been feeding bears doughnuts left over from a neighbor's shop.
A box of doughnuts was in the garage when the bear struck.
"Feeding them is the last thing you want to do," Ivany said. "That bear might have remained in the wild if this man hadn't been feeding them."