After years in hibernation, the state-sanctioned black bear hunt is back.
The New Jersey Fish and Game Council voted to approve the return of the controversial practice at its meeting Tuesday, less than a week after Gov. Phil Murphy said he had “no choice” but to bring back the hunt because of an “extreme” increase in bear sightings. It came as state officials were investigating possible illegal hunting activity in Ringwood after finding four dead black bears there.
The council’s approval means a change to the state’s Comprehensive Bear Management Policy and an amendment to the game code. The council also voted on limitations to the hunt, including the dates, the size of the bears that qualify and baiting practices.
A handful of speakers got up in favor of the changes but many more opposed the hunt’s return. Wade Stein, president of the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmens Clubs, said that the hunt is a way to “act in the best interest of the whole” and thanked Murphy for “allowing us to assist you with keeping New Jersey safe.”
Meanwhile, dozens of members of the public opposed the return of the hunt. Many called it a “sham” and called into question how much of an emergency the bear population could be if the only human attack this year happened in May but the proposed return of the hunt wasn’t presented until November.
The Department of Environmental Protection estimates that there are almost 3,000 black bears in Morris, Passaic, Sussex and Warren counties and that there has been an increase in human-bear interactions.
There have been 237% more incidents reported from January through October this year compared to the same period last year, including:
- 62 aggressive encounters with humans
- One human attack
- Five dog attacks
- 12 home entries
- 15 attempted home entries
- 84 instances of property damage exceeding $1,000
- And 52 attacks on protected livestock.
Jeff Tittel, former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said it seemed like Murphy was not using “sound science” but rather “political science to cherry-pick data.” He said that this year bears were straying farther from the woods looking for food and water because of drought conditions.
“The numbers do not justify the response,” Tittel said. Alluding to suspicions Murphy has presidential ambitions, Tittel added: “I think that the governor is doing this because as someone who is for gun control, he doesn’t want to be running in Ohio and New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and Michigan being for gun control and being against hunting because that hurts him with the voters.”
Humane Society New Jersey State Director Elissa Frank said it is “poor public policy” that will allow an “unsustainable slaughter of our state’s beloved bears.”
A controversial practice in densely populated NJ
Hunting bears has been a contentious subject in New Jersey, one of the most densely populated states in the country. Murphy, a Democrat, campaigned for his first term promising to end the bear hunt but faced legal challenges and didn’t shift to non-lethal bear population management until 2020.
Now, the population is expected to grow by more than 1,000 in the next two years. Without efforts to control the bear population, Murphy said public safety is at risk.
“I feel awful,” he said in a radio interview last week. “But I can’t violate what are obvious facts that are potentially undermining public safety, particularly among kids. I just can’t in good conscience go on in this direction.”
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The dense bear population can also lead to inadequate natural sources of food and territory, which causes the bears to spread beyond their original area and potentially interact more with people. It increases the risk of bears seeking sources of food such as trash, pet food, seed from bird feeders, agricultural crops, and poultry and livestock.
The reinstated bear hunting season will run from Dec. 5 through Dec. 10, the same as the six-day firearm season for deer. The intention is to hit a 20% population harvest target and if that is not reached, the season will be extended to the following week, Dec. 14 through Dec. 17. Bear hunting will be permitted on state and private lands within designated bear hunting zones.
The council is also implementing strict prohibitions on cubs under 75 pounds, the taking of adults traveling in family packs with cubs below 75 pounds and restrictions on the practice of baiting. DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette has said he will sign the updated Comprehensive Black Bear Management Plan for authorization of the hunt under the emergency proposal.
Tuesday’s actions were an emergency order. The overall approval of the Comprehensive Bear Management Policy will be voted on early next year. More information on public hearings is expected to be made available next month.