Environmentalists push back on return of N.J.’s bear hunt

By: - November 14, 2022 7:00 am

One year after declaring there would be no bear hunt, Gov. Phil Murphy intends to revive it after a jump in reports of human-bear encounters. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Animal welfare advocates are slamming Gov. Phil Murphy for his reversal on ending the bear hunt in New Jersey, threatening him with legal action in hopes of protecting the state’s bears. 

After years of vowing to end the state’s controversial annual black bear hunt, Murphy told NJ Advance Media last week he plans to resume bear hunting on state property as early as December. And on Tuesday, the state Fish and Game Council will hold a meeting to discuss approving emergency amendments to the state’s game code to allow for a new bear hunt.

Former state Sen. Ray Lesniak said he’ll be there Tuesday with a coalition of animal and environmental activists who allege the council’s proposed move violates the state constitution.

When Lesniak heard about the bear hunt potentially returning, he said, “I was more than surprised, I was shocked.”

Lesniak said he and other animal rights activists have had multiple meetings and discussions with Shawn LaTourette, the state’s environmental commissioner, that led them to believe the bear hunt would not resume.

“Basically, they were pulling our chain,” Lesniak said. 

Murphy cited an increase in bear sightings and nuisance complaints from residents and wildlife officials as a reason to rescind his 2021 executive order that banned bear hunts on state property. He said in a statement that while he previously committed to ending the bear hunt, “the data demands that we act now to prevent tragic bear-human interactions.” 

Encounters with bears have increased sharply since 2021, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. About 430 bear sightings were reported from Jan. 1 to Oct. 21, up roughly 130% from 2021. Another 1,538 nuisance and damage reports were made between that time, up 237% from 2021, when 457 reports were filed. 

The majority of bear encounters occur in Sussex, Morris, and Warren counties — commonly referred to as “bear country” by residents — but sightings have been reported in all 21 counties. 

If approved, the bear hunt would take place from Dec. 5 to Dec. 10. The season could be extended from Dec. 14 to Dec. 17 if the goal of cutting the population by 20% is not met. 

Sen. Steve Oroho (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Republicans in parts of the state with a higher bear population applauded Murphy’s move.

“Going forward, I hope the administration will continue to follow the data and allow the wildlife conservation experts — who best understand the issue — to guide New Jersey’s bear management policies,” state Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) said in a statement.

Angi Metler, a co-founder of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey who lives in Vernon in Sussex County, said she hasn’t seen many more bears than usual, except on trash day. She said while she owns a bear-resistant trash can, many of her neighbors don’t, attracting the hungry creatures. She recently encountered a bear while on a hike, which she said is normal for the area. 

She said she’s worried the bear encounter numbers offered by the state are inflated by residents who call repeatedly or by hunters who want the bear hunt to return. Metler noted that no emergency was called in 2014, when data showed double the number of bear incidents. 

“There isn’t this outrageous emergency. It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “I think I would have gotten a lot more calls from people, and while I can say that I have seen a standard number of people calling us and asking for information, I don’t see a dramatic increase.” 

It’s unclear if people will be able to testify virtually at Tuesday’s Fish and Game Council meeting, which is set to start at 10 a.m. at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. 

Environmental activist Jeff Tittel, former director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, plans to challenge the emergency rule-making as a violation of the administrative law process. Tittel is critical of Murphy’s reversal here.

“It’s just distasteful. It’s not just about having another hunt. What I find terrible is that he’s usurping the democratic process to push his political agenda forward,” Tittel said.

Murphy spokesman Bailey Lawrence said it “became clear the state had reached a critical moment” to deal with the growing bear population after hearing from communities in bear country. Murphy and environmental agencies partnered to take action to prevent bear-human interactions, he said.

“The reinstatement of a more regulated bear hunt will help mitigate the growing bear population and prevent drastic population increases in the future,” Lawrence said. 

In fiscal year 2022, the Department of Environmental Protection earmarked $1.5 million of its budget to expand non-lethal management methods, increase bear safety public education and outreach efforts, and implement a statewide outreach program. That included bilingual ads on social media, public service announcements, and email blasts.

The Fish and Game Council revived the annual bear hunt in 2003 after a 30-year hiatus under then-Gov. Jim McGreevey. McGreevey’s successor, Jon Corzine, canceled the bear hunt in 2006. It returned in 2010 under Gov. Chris Christie.

Ending the bear hunt was one of Murphy’s campaign promises in 2017. He signed an executive order after taking office ending the bear hunt on state property, which accounted for about 40% of kills during the hunt. Hunting continued on federal, county, municipal, and private property. In September 2021, he said there would be “no bear hunt this year, period.” The Fish and Game Council approved ending the hunt entirely.

Critics say Murphy’s administration should have been more proactive in educating residents on how to avoid interactions with bears — store food inside, use bear-resistant trash cans, keep an air horn on the porch — and promoted more non-lethal measures to contain the population without a hunt. 

“Murphy’s bad faith and inaction show and demonstrate that he’s more concerned about hunters than he is about public safety,” Metler said. “It’s very disappointing because I live in the heart of bear country and a lot of people I know like living among the bears, but feel like we want a program that does reduce complaints and incidents and is not so cruel.”

Lesniak plans to ask the Fish and Game Council to adopt an amendment to the bear management policy that would require municipalities in bear country to provide residents with bear-resistant trash cans and mandate towns to make sure households use those cans.

“The driving force for bear interactions is human error,” Lesniak said. “Bears can smell food from a mile away, and states like Alaska and Colorado do provide, ensure, regulate trash disposal rather than having bear hunts. We should want to live in harmony with nature.”

Several people pointed to Murphy’s potential political ambitions — he is often cited as a potential candidate for president in 2024, if President Biden declines to seek a second term — as to why he both ended the bear hunt and wants to restart it. Tittel said Murphy needed Democrat support to clinch victory for his second term in 2021, but is now looking at potentially courting voters in hunter-friendly states like New Hampshire and Vermont. 

Murphy’s team did not respond to questions about his political aspirations.

“I think last year he only did it as an election gimmick,” Tittel said. “I think he’s sacrificing bears on the altar of his political agenda.”

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.