TRENTON – New Jersey plans to hold a bear hunt next month, as Gov. Phil Murphy reversed his long-standing opposition in the face of rising complaints about interactions between bears and people.

Murphy opposed the bear hunt as a candidate and gradually restricted it as governor, first by banning it from state-owned land and ultimately not renewing the hunt when the previous plan expired. Last year was the first without a bear hunt in the state since 2009.

But now a revived Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy including a hunt is on the agenda for the Fish and Game Council at its meeting next Tuesday.

It would impose new limitations such as banning hunters from shooting cubs that weigh under 75 pounds or adults traveling in family packs with cubs of that size, as well as put restrictions on the practice of baiting.

Following the science

“Since the outset of my administration, I have promised to ground every difficult decision on the latest science and evidence in order to protect our communities,” Murphy said. “From the data we have analyzed to the stories we have heard from families across the state, it is clear that New Jersey’s black bear population is growing significantly, and nonlethal bear management strategies alone are not enough to mitigate this trend.

“Every New Jerseyan deserves to live in communities in which their children, families, and property are protected from harm, and while I committed to ending the bear hunt, the data demands that we act now to prevent tragic bear-human interactions,” he said.

'You feed bears, you breed bears'

The Animal Protection League of New Jersey said the state has made no real efforts to mandate better trash management using bear-resistant containers, which they say would keep bears away from homes and neighborhoods, reducing interactions.

“Zero, zip, nada,” Angi Metler, director of the Animal Protection League, said of the state’s efforts to address trash containers.

“We needed a more comprehensive policy at the state level which would deal with trash, which is the source of every bear complaint,” Metler said. “Hunting bears does not reduce complaints or incidents with black bears.”

“I live in bear country. We don’t need a bear hunt. We need garbage management. We need to stop feeding bears because when you feed bears, you breed bears,” she said. “Their population goes down drastically when they are denied access to unnatural food sources.”

The DEP said that in addition to the hunt, it will launch a broader Wildlife Management and Public Safety Initiative that will include a trash management pilot to advance non-lethal strategies, the expansion of local government planning for deer population control and protections for exotic species.

Sierra Club New Jersey director Anjuli Ramos-Busot said "comprehensive action of these tactics before we kill more bears."

"In order to reduce nuisance cases with bears, we need a real management plan that will deal with educating the public on how to live with bears and bear-proofing their property," Ramos-Busot said. "Seeing bears in the woods does not provide justification for hunting them."

The APL said the Governor’s Office made no mention that the hunt could return at an October meeting and that timing of the announcement, just after the election, is suspect.

“The governor is betraying his promise to stop the bear hunt, and this is all in bad faith,” Metler said.

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Hunt would start Dec. 5

The bear hunting season would run from Dec. 5 to 10, concurrent with the six-day firearm season for deer hunting. It could be extended to Dec. 14 to 17, if the target of reducing the bear population by 20% isn’t met. Hunting will be permitted on state and private lands, within designated hunting zones.

The state Department of Environmental Protection estimates the black bear population is near 3,000 in Morris, Passaic, Sussex and Warren counties and says it is projected to grow to more than 4,000 bears in the next two years.

Black bear incidents reported to the DEP from January through October of this year are 237% above the same period in 2021. They include 62 aggressive encounters with humans, one human attack, 12 dog attacks, 12 home entries, 15 attempted home entries, 84 instances of property damage exceeding $1,000 and 52 attacks on protected livestock.

“Overpopulation and dispersal of bears to areas with less supportive natural habitat is a concern for public safety as well as the overall health and sustainability of the species,” Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said. “Given the black bear population and dispersion circumstances affecting New Jersey, a regulated hunt with humane limitations is necessary and appropriate.”

The Fish and Game Council meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday was moved to the New Jersey State Museum. It will include the opportunity for public comment in advance of the vote.

“We have an obligation to conduct bear hunting in New Jersey both ethically and responsibly,” said council chairman Frank Virgilio. “The council's job is to consider credible black bear management as well as the non-hunting public and their acceptance of our regulations.”

The Republican lawmakers who represent the 24th District in northwest New Jersey commended Murphy for being willing to follow the advice of wildlife experts.

"Bears have no natural predators, and without hunting, the number of bears could continue to multiply unchecked," said Assemblyman Parker Space, R-Sussex. "This was the right call by the administration—they looked at the data and common sense prevailed.”

History of the hunt

New Jersey had yearly bear hunts until they were abolished in 1971. Hunts were held in 2003 and 2005, and then-Gov. Chris Christie restored annual hunts in 2010. A plan adopted in Christie's second term continued the hunt through 2020, despite Murphy’s opposition. But Murphy suspended it on state lands in 2018, his first year in office, then ended it in 2021.

“We had concerns last year when he stopped the hunt that he did it for political purposes, and doing this the day after the election – very interesting,” Metler said. “Yeah, I think this was done for political purposes. It won’t help him.”

Metler said Murphy didn’t announce the change before the election for fear of angering Democratic voters.

“He probably never intended to keep his promise,” Metler said. “It was a political ploy.”

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Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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