New Jersey Agencies Face Off Over Bear Hunting

July 29, 2004

The New Jersey Fish and Game Council recently voted ten to one in favor of a black bear hunt this year, sparking a debate over how many bears actually live in the state and how to live with them.

In 2003 New Jersey held its first black bear hunt in over 30 years. Seven thousand hunting permits were issued, and a total of 328 bears where shot during a one-week season. The hunt was justified by a reported surge in the population of bears and the threat they represented to the general public. Now those population statistics are in question.

"Last year the Fish and Wildlife Division presented [state] black bear population estimates at approximately 3,200 animals. The most recent estimate by our biologists is now less than half that number," said Commissioner Bradley Campbell of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in New Jersey, who supported last year's hunt. "The data does not currently document a rapidly expanding bear population."

As a result, Campbell announced on July 20 that his office would not issue the permits necessary to conduct the hunt, rebuking the Fish and Game Council and throwing the hunt into controversy.

The Fish and Game Council is appointed by the governor of New Jersey and is composed of farmers, hunters, and fishers. It is empowered by the state legislature with independent responsibility to protect and provide an adequate supply of game and fish for recreation purposes. The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife is a state environmental agency reporting to Commissioner Bradley.

Bradley's decision not to issue permits for the hunting of black bears provoked praise from animal welfare groups and threats of a lawsuit from hunting advocacy groups.

"We want the hunt to continue, because we feel it is the most effective management tool for controlling bear populations," said Beth Ruth, associate director of communications for the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance in Columbus, Ohio. "If the permits are not issued and a legal challenge can be brought, we will certainly take action."

Where the Bears Are

Most of New Jersey's bears live in Sussex County, in the northwest corner of the state. As the human population there steadily increases, encounters with bears inevitably rise. They are lured out of the forest by smells wafting out of trash cans and kitchens in suburbia. Pets have been killed and many people are fearful of living so close to the animals.

"The hunt is supposed to be justified by an exploding bear population and the risk that poses to people, but getting concrete numbers on bears is a constant problem," said council member Jack Schrier, the one dissenting vote on New Jersey's Fish and Game Council and its only nonhunter.

Bears have a small number of cubs, one or two at a time, making their populations sensitive to overhunting. "If you don't know how many bears you have, then how can you know how many you should kill in a management plan? If current low-end population estimates are correct, the 328 bears killed last year represent around 20 percent of the total population—which is incredibly high," Schrier continued.

Continued on Next Page >>


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