The New Jersey Fish and Game Council unanimously approved reinstating the controversial bear hunt until 2028, when it would need to be renewed. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Environmental groups want Gov. Phil Murphy to step in and stop the state’s black bear hunt, saying he’s again backtracking on a campaign pledge to end the hunt.
Doris Lin, animal rights attorney at the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, said the group hasn’t ruled out filing a lawsuit to stop the hunt from proceeding. The Fish and Game Council last week approved a plan to allow a regulated bear hunt until 2028.
“At this point, we’re hoping Murphy doesn’t allow it to go forward,” Lin said.
The Department of Environmental Protection approved the council’s adopted rule package Thursday, officials said. Murphy is not involved in formally approving the adoption of the bear hunt plan.
A spokesman for Murphy’s office pointed to comments made last November when he reinstated the bear hunt on an emergency basis after a jump in reports of bear interactions. At the time, Murphy said the regulated hunt would “help limit dangerous interactions between people and bears to protect public safety.”
Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex) commended the Murphy administration for “putting science first” and resuming the hunt. He’s lived in the northwestern part of the state his whole life, he said, and is no stranger to bear encounters.
“I am happy his administration did that because I’m sure most folks on his side of the aisle don’t understand the bear hunt. I’m happy they’re allowing for the science to go through and handle this before it gets way out of control,” he said.
Officials instituted a bear hunt in 2003 after three decades without one, but it was stopped in 2006 by then-Gov. Jon Corzine. His successor, Chris Christie, started an annual bear hunt in 2010. Murphy vowed on the campaign trail to end the hunt when he took office in 2018.
Murphy signed an executive order ending bear hunts on state property in 2018 — accounting for about 40% of the hunt — but bear hunting was still allowed on federal, county, and municipal property. He prohibited all bear hunting in 2021 before it restarted last year.
TThe Department of Environmental Protection reported a 237% increase in bear-related nuisance and damage reports from 2021 to 2022, and over 400 bear sightings from Jan. 1 to Oct. 21, 2022, up nearly 130% from the same period in 2021.
Jeff Tittel, an environmental activist and former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, argued that the data Murphy’s camp relies on to proceed with another bear hunt is cherry-picked. He noted that some bear reports are multiple sightings of one bear, and said the pandemic led to increased bear sightings because more people were home to see them.
“Last year was a very hot summer, so you saw some bears straying from the woods,” said Tittel. “But that’s no real justification for this hunt. That’s not a real management plan.”
He wants to see environmental officials put more investment into educating people on how to cohabitate in bear counties with wildlife — keeping trash away, locking gates, and other non-lethal efforts.
The policy approved last week allows for bear hunting in Bergen, Hunterdon, Mercer, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, and Sussex counties for one week in October and one week in December. If bear population management goals are missed, officials can extend the season for one week. One bear can be killed per hunter per season.
The policy prohibits hunting bears within 300 feet of a deer-baited area, killing bears that weigh less than 75 pounds, and killing adult bears that are accompanying young bears.
Many people at Wednesday’s Fish Game Council meeting urged the council to vote against the measure because the council approved it unanimously.
“We’ve submitted public comments pointing out that their bear policies were unscientific,” said Lin. “We knew that their population estimate was wildly exaggerated. That’s how they convince the public that a bear hunt is needed.”
Wirths pushed back, wondering how many people against the bear hunt live near bears. He also noted that a unanimous vote is “pretty impressive, that they all felt it was the right thing to do.”
“I have respect for these activists … but I’ve got a lot more respect for scientists on the wildlife commission that hear about this day in and day out,” he said. “I think this is the right thing for controlling the population safely, and having an organized hunt will be good for the citizens of northwest New Jersey.”
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