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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ An Ohio-based hunters group involved in four lawsuits filed over last year's black bear hunt says it is poised to return to court if state regulators stand firm on a vow to withhold permits for a 2004 season.

On Tuesday, a state game panel sanctioned a hunt for December, prompting opposition from Environmental Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell, who said he has the authority to deny permits to hunters.

Campbell supported the 2003 hunt, the first in 33 years, but he now favors other means to control New Jersey's rebounding bear population and avert bear-human encounters.

The Columbus, Ohio-based U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance said Wednesday it was monitoring the dispute in New Jersey.

"We're aware of the situation, and if Commissioner Campbell doesn't issue the permits, we will pursue every legal means at our disposal," Rick Story, the group's vice president, told The Record of Bergen County.

In the run-up to last year's bear season, the Sportsmen's Alliance joined three suits supporting the hunt and unsuccessfully sued on behalf of hunters under age 16, when Campbell excluded their participation.

Garden State organizations also are weighing their options.

"We are not for the hunt nor against it. However, we support the scientific view. We probably will go to court, but not for the hunt _ we're just for sound scientific management of wildlife," said Jim Guild Jr., vice president of the Sussex County Federation of Sportsmen.

New Jersey hunters shot 328 bears during last year's six-day season, held a way to trim the bear population.

At the time, state biologists estimated the bears' ranks to be 3,200. But they say more cubs have been born this year than the number of bears killed last year.

Emerging as one of Campbell's harshest critics is rock musician Ted Nugent, founder of Ted Nugent United Sportsmen of America. The group has about 10,000 members nationally, including 160 in New Jersey.

"We want bears managed so that it is an optimum for bears _ a thriving balance _ and now bears are denser in New Jersey than any biologist would support," Nugent told The Record.

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