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New Jersey Agencies Face Off Over Bear Hunting

Jennifer Hile
National Geographic Channel
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.

If the proposed hunt moves forward—it's unclear whether final authority for the hunt will rest with the Commissioner or the Fish and Game Council—it is scheduled for December 6 to 11.

Hunters would be required to have a hunting license and complete a safety course offered by Commissioner Bradley's department. Either shotguns or muzzle loaders can be used. Hunters can shoot bears of either gender, cubs included. The minimum age for a hunter is ten.

"The type of gun that a ten-year-old can handle is not sufficient to kill a bear humanely, so we are concerned that kids with guns could cause a lot of injuries to bears," said Linda Smith, leader of BEAR, Bear Education and Resource Group based in Hewitt, New Jersey. "Bears are not easy to kill; it often takes grown men multiple shots."

Bear baiting is also legal in New Jersey. "Bear baiting involves putting out a food source for bears, like a bucket of jelly donuts, every day for a few weeks before the hunt. That way the bear gets used to coming to a predetermined area," Smith said. "Then the day of the hunt, the hunter goes to the food pile and shoots the bear while it's eating the donuts or whatever. Most people find that offensive."

However, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance defends bear baiting, a method used for hunting bears all across the country. "It ensures a cleaner shot, meaning a more humane death," Ruth said.

Guns vs. Garbage-Pail Lids

Regardless of how the bears are killed, the question of whether hunting is an effective way to manage bear populations in suburban areas remains hotly contested.

"The problem with the hunt is that they are not targeting the bears who cause the problems," said Susan Hagood, Wildlife Issues Specialist for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. "The bears who happen to have a home range next to places where people live are the most likely to get into trouble. But hunters go out into the woods, a long way from people and towns, so they are killing the bears least likely to cause conflicts."

Hagood argues that figuring out how to manage bears that show up in the suburbs—where hunting is not permitted—is the best way to reduce conflicts with people. "If someone sees a bear in their backyard or at their bird feeder, they usually call the police. So we believe training police to deal with bear conflicts is the safest and most effective way to proceed."

The Humane Society of the U.S. hosts workshops that teach officers to scare bears off, which has proven effective in national parks like Yosemite, where people and bears are also living in close quarters.

"The goal is to use the bear's dominance structure against the bear by convincing them that you are tougher, meaner, noisier, and stronger than they are. If you convince them of that, and that being around people is a recipe for discomfort, they will move on," Hagood said.

That means shouting, waving arms, or crashing pots and pans, which often sends the bear back into the woods. "If that doesn't work, a police officer can fire in the direction of the bear to scare them, or shoot rubber bullets or bean bags at their backsides. That always gets them moving."

Depending on how habituated the bear is to people, it may take two or three rounds of scare tactics to get the animal to move on permanently.

"That approach needs to be partnered with a bear-safe community program, which means educating people about how to reduce the attractants that bring bears to their doorsteps," Hagood said. That includes using bearproof garbage cans, feeding pets inside, and taking down bird feeders during prime bear season.

"Black bears are not aggressive. I think that's the biggest misconception out there," said Lynn Rogers, founder of the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota. Rogers has studied bears for 38 years and was an advisor to New Jersey's Fish and Game Council. He is also a hunter.

"Black bears aren't after us, they are after our food. In the eastern United States, there have been only two people killed by black bears in the last hundred years. They are not a significant threat to the public," Rogers said. "Cut off an easy food supply, which is essentially what a loose-lid garbage can represents, and bears will move back into the forest."

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