— -- A Boy Scout leader was injured when he and three scouts were attacked by a black bear while exploring a cave in New Jersey, officials said.
The attack, which occurred at Splitrock Reservoir in Rockaway Township, left Scout leader Christopher Petronino, 50, with bites and scratches to his scalp and legs. He was airlifted to a hospital with non-life threatening injuries. The three children were uninjured, officials said.
Rockaway Township Mayor Mike Dachisen said that when the bear attacked the group in a cave they were exploring, the three scouts ran out and called 911.
The state Department of Environmental Protection was investigating the cause of the attack.
The growing bear population in New Jersey has led to an increasing number of close encounters between bears and people, and the state instituted an annual bear hunt in an attempt to reduce the number. This year, 501 bears were killed in the state's hunt, which is held in early December.
Splitrock Reservoir is a 1500-acre wooded area with a popular 13.8-mile hiking loop.
At the hospital, Division of Fish and Wildlife Conservation Officers interviewed Petronino, who said he has known about the small Talus cave since the early 1980s, and has never encountered a bear.
Petronino said the black bear grabbed his foot and pulled him further into the cave, biting and scratching him. Petronino struck the bear twice in the head with a rock hammer. He then pulled his sweatshirt over his head and curled into the fetal position. He yelled to the scouts, who were outside the cave, to leave and go get help.
The scouts called 911 with Petronino's phone, but could not tell the dispatchers their exact location. Petronino remained in the cave with the bear for a substantial amount of time. He said he kept his back to the bear, but could hear it "huffing."
Petronino yelled for the boys to leave any food they had at mouth of the cave. The bear eventually walked out of the cave.
Once Petronino heard the bear leave, he exited the cave, retrieved his phone, and contacted emergency services to give them a better idea of his location. Petronino's call was placed an hour and 20 minutes after the boys' call.