TRENTON — With black bears emerging from winter dens and entering a very active period of the year in search of food and mates, the Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish and Wildlife is reminding residents, particularly in the northwest region of New Jersey known as “bear country,” of basic precautions this spring to reduce the risk of potential encounters.“Bears that learn to associate food with people, and their homes and property, can easily become nuisance bears that forage for easy sources of food in neighborhoods,” said David Chanda, director of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. “Residents can greatly reduce the risk of interactions with bears by taking commonsense steps. Most importantly, people should never feed bears, intentionally or unintentionally.”It is illegal to intentionally feed black bears in New Jersey and punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. A more common problem is unintentional bear feeding by homeowners who unknowingly make household trash, pet foods and other food sources easily available for bears to find and eat.DEP wildlife experts stress that a black bear simply passing through an area and not causing a specific problem, such as breaking into trash or otherwise trying to access food sources on peoples’ properties or posing a safety threat, should be left alone. The Division of Fish and Wildlife advises people to leave the area and allow the bear to continue on its way. When frightened, bears may seek refuge by climbing trees.The Division of Fish and Wildlife also offers the additional following tips to minimize conflicts with bears this spring:Secure your trash and eliminate obvious sources of food, such as pet food on decks, easy-to-reach bird feeders, or food residues left in barbecue grills.Use certified bear-resistant garbage containers if possible. Otherwise, store all garbage in containers with tight-fitting lids and place them along the inside walls of your garage, or in the basement, a sturdy shed or other secure area.Wash garbage containers frequently with a disinfectant solution to remove odors. Put out garbage on collection day, not the night before.Avoid feeding birds when bears are active. If you choose to feed birds, do so during daylight hours only and bring feeders indoors at night. Suspend birdfeeders from a free-hanging wire, making sure they are at least 10 feet off the ground. Clean up spilled seeds and shells daily.Immediately remove all uneaten food and food bowls used by pets fed outdoors.Clean outdoor grills and utensils to remove food and grease residue. Store grills securely.Do not place meat or any sweet foods in compost piles.Remove fruit or nuts that fall from trees in your yard.Install electric fencing as an effective way to protect crops, beehives and livestock.If you encounter a bear that is standing its ground, remain calm and do not run. Make sure the bear has an escape route. Avoid direct eye contact, back up slowly and speak with a low, assertive voice.Report bear damage, nuisance behavior or aggressive bears to the Wildlife Control Unit of the DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife at (908) 735-8793. During evenings and weekends, residents should call their local police department or the DEP Hotline at 877-WARN-DEP (877-927-6337).Black bears have been sighted in all 21 New Jersey counties, and bear-human encounters have occurred more frequently in recent years in places outside of traditional bear country, defined as the area west of Interstate 287 and north of Interstate 78.To learn more about New Jersey’s black bears, their history in New Jersey and ways to avoid problems with them, visit www.nj.gov/dep/fgw/bearfacts.htm.