Black bears are essentially shy creatures, but are drawn to humans by food. This year, bears have prompted 328 damage and nuisance complaints, mainly from poking around in garbage cans. "Most of [the complaints] are relatively minor," said Jack Kasky, a DEP spokesman.
But a few complaints were more serious in nature: six marauding bruins broke into houses this year to raid the cupboards, and three farmers reported livestock kills.
Four human injuries have been reported in the past three years. This spring a bear swatted a little boy sitting on his front stoop, and a man was mauled when he jumped on a bear's back to break up a fight with his dog.
These bears, listed as category one offenders along with those that repeatedly destroy property, are shot.
But black bears are not the bloodthirsty killers many believe them to be. "No one has been killed by a black bear in New Jersey in the last 100 years, and it's one of the places that bears and people mingle most," said bear biologist Lynn Rogers of the Wildlife Research Center in Ely, Minnesota.
How Many Bears in the Forest?
At issue in the hunt debate is exactly how many bears there are. Carr puts bear numbers at 3,278, while Rogers and other biologists estimate a population as low as 1,350.
"People from the outside have the erroneous impression that we're tripping over them," says Lynda Smith, director of the Bear Education and Resource Group in Hewitt, N.J.
Everybody agrees that the bear population is rising. In state studies over the past two years, biologists tallied the population by collecting fur samples to identify individual bears by their DNA, and captured and tagged bears. Smith charges that these counting methods are flawed.
"DNA studies are not a gold standard method for doing population estimates," said Smith. She says tracking bears outfitted with radio collars is necessary to get accurate numbers.
To antihunt campaigners, a better alternative to the hunt is to target Category One troublemakers.
"Trying to control nuisance bears with a hunt is like trying to control crime by shooting into a crowd," says Nina Austenberg, director of the Humane Society's Mid-Atlantic office in Flanders, N.J.
Earlier this year, N.J. passed legislation making it illegal to feed bears. Once bears associate people or houses with food, trouble starts. "A fed bear is a dead bear," notes Dennis Schvejda, conservation director for the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter in Princeton.
The best way to avoid nuisance complaints, Smith says, is public education: post warning signs throughout bear country, distribute information to new residents, and institute an ordinance requiring bear-proof garbage cans.
Campbell facilitated a partnership with the Humane Society to explore another bear control option. "Immunocontraception," an injected form of birth control, has successfully sterilized wild horses and white-tailed deer in other states. If it works with bears, it could stabilize the populations, says Austenberg.
Negative conditioningusing an arsenal of rubber buckshot, pyrotechnics, and pepper sprayteaches bears to avoid humans and their property. The technique has worked in California and Pennsylvania communities.
Some propose that bears in northwestern New Jersey be relocated to bear-free forested areas like the southern pinelands
While conservationists, hunters and bear-country residents debate the hunt, No. 744 remains at risk. Human attitudes are a deciding factor.
"To some, a bear sauntering through their yard is terrifying," Rogers says. "But for others, it's a joy."
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