New Jersey Plan to Lift Bear-Hunt Ban Spurs Protests

Sharon Guynup
National Geographic Channel
June 16, 2003
When the bear spied humans approaching, it bolted—and was jerked
back by the wire snare around its paw that tethered it to a tree. Pat
Carr, a wildlife biologist with New Jersey's Division of Fish and
Wildlife, shot the bruin in the thigh with a tranquilizer dart. Within
minutes, it was asleep.

Carr pulled the dart from the female—Black Bear Number 744, according to her ear tags. He measured her paws, head, and length, checked her overall health, took blood samples, extracted a small tooth to determine her age, and punched a tissue sample from her ear for DNA identification.

"She's a big one," he said, recording data as part of an updated population study. She weighed in at a hefty 232 pounds (87 kilograms). When he was finished, he injected a drug to counteract the sedative. The bear soon awoke and staggered off into the forest.

No. 744 was caught in Worthington State Forest on the Delaware River in northwestern New Jersey, in the heart of bear country. In mid-December, she and other New Jersey bears may face the first officially sanctioned hunt since 1970.

The state would issue up to 10,000 permits for the Dec. 8 to 13 hunt—organized to cull as much as 20 percent of the state's bear population.

The hunt has touched off a fierce controversy. Protesters have rallied at the statehouse in Trenton, clutching teddy bears and more than 82,000 people have signed an antihunt petition.

Exactly how many bears live in the state is hotly disputed, as well as the danger they pose—and the need for a hunt to control the population. The appointed New Jersey Fish & Wildlife Game Council, composed of hunters, approved the hunt in March, but will accept public comments until early July.

Bear Recovery

New Jersey black bears were nearly hunted to extinction. But protection under a 33-year hunting ban has allowed them to recover. Since then, like in many other suburban and rural areas around the United States and the world, development has intruded on wildlife areas. Now, bear country sprawls with new housing complexes, shopping centers and vacation homes.

This means more bear sightings, more run-ins with humans and increasing property damage. "We have a bunch of people living where we haven't had bears in decades," said Carr.

During his 2002 campaign, Governor Jim McGreevey promised a five-year moratorium on bear hunting. Now he has reneged—and delegated the matter to Bradley Campbell, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

"We consider the hunt a legitimate and appropriate management approach," Campbell says. "There's a public safety concern."

Nuisance Bears

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.

Bear Control

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 conditioning—using an arsenal of rubber buckshot, pyrotechnics, and pepper spray—teaches 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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