New Jersey panel that approves the bear hunt has too many hunters on it, activists say
Six of the 11 members of the Fish and Game Council are chosen by a state hunters club. Critics of the bear hunt say that should change. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Animal rights activists are questioning the makeup of the council in charge of approving bear hunts, saying the 40-year-old statute requiring that the majority of the panel must be approved by a hunters’ club is outdated and must change.
“It’s an antiquated council,” said Angi Metler, director of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey. “We’re just saying the current makeup of the council doesn’t work for the majority of people who don’t support these programs.”
The state’s Fish and Game Council, which falls under the control of the state Department of Environmental Protection, is made up of 11 members. State statute requires that six of the council’s members must be recommended for appointment by the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, a hunting advocacy group.
“The way it is now, it basically gives the sportsmen’s club the same type of authority as the Legislature,” said former state Sen. Ray Lesniak, a Democrat and critic of the bear hunt.
The council’s other five members must be three farmers, a public member “knowledgeable in land use management and soil conservation practices,” and the chairman of the Endangered and Non-game Species Advisory Committee. Currently, there are two sportsmen vacancies on the council.
During a meeting last week, the council unanimously approved a five-year bear management plan —a bear hunt for two weeks of the year until 2028 — that has been criticized as unnecessary by animal rights activists who claim bear hunt proponents are overstating the state’s bear population to keep the hunt going.
A spokesperson for the Fish and Game Council did not respond to a request for comment.
Larry Herrighty is the secretary for the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, which supports the bear hunt. Herrighty defended the makeup of the panel, arguing that some of the Fish and Game Council’s chief goals are to set appropriate hunting dates, impose new regulations for managing the state’s bear population, and determine how many bears one hunter can kill.
Council members should be “experienced” in hunting, he said. If hunters started to wipe out an entire species’ population, he said, “then we could sit and talk about change, but that’s not the case,” he added.
The makeup of the council was the subject of litigation in the 1970s when the Humane Society and Sierra Club sued the Fish and Game Council and other state officials. The groups argued the membership of the board was unconstitutional because it excluded the appointment from anyone who was not recommended by either the State Agricultural Convention — which nominates the farmer members — or the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.
The Humane Society argued that the statute prevented any of its members from being appointed to the council.
The case made its way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled that it is constitutional to have the specialized board filled with members who are essentially appointed by the agricultural convention and the sportsmen’s club, with the governor’s support. But the court also said the makeup of the council “may be perceived as less than ideal” and suggested the state added members of the public to it.
The one public member was added to the council shortly after.
The New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs represents over 150,000 hunters and fishermen throughout the state and advocates for sport hunting and lawful trapping as “valuable tools in the management and preservation of a healthy wildlife population.”
“The issue here is that these are people who are experienced in the activity, who know the ins and outs of working with biologists to work out a message of management and regulation, that ensure the health and viability of those wildlife populations,” Herrighty said. “I don’t see that there’s a need to change that.”
Lesniak, who previously led lawsuits fighting the bear hunt, said he’s spent months researching how to mount a new legal challenge to the council’s membership.
He argues it’s unconstitutional to have a private organization effectively appoint a majority to a council that has policy-making powers. Even if it were the Humane Society in the majority, it would still be antithetical to having proper representation on the board, he said in a phone interview.
“The way this composition is, it basically leaves it up to a private organization to choose the majority,” he said. “It hasn’t changed in a long time, in part because it hasn’t been challenged.”
Metler said the council would benefit from having members interested in non-lethal plans to manage the bear population. She said that would bring the state “into the 21st Century.”
“I understand that if you have a council, you want experts, but you want them to regulate their own industry and make it better,” she said. “These hunters, they just go out and hunt. That’s not changing for the best.”
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