As N.J.'s black bear population thrives, it's the hunt that's endangered

Bear Hunt
In this 2014 file photo, Kim Tinnes, center left, with New Jersey’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, weighs a 346-pound male bear at the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area check station in Fredon, N.J. The last segments of the black bear hunting season — scheduled from Monday, Dec. 4 through Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017 — may be the state’s last for some time. Gov.-elect Phil Murphy has said he plans to impose a moratorium on the hunts.

As New Jersey’s black bears fatten on fallen beechnuts, on Monday hunters will get one more crack at “harvesting” the state’s largest land animal before it hunkers down for the winter.

It’s possible this could be the last such hunt for a while and the first of several potential environmentally related policy reversals the Garden State could face in the coming years as Democrat Phil Murphy replaces Gov. Christie.

Murphy is pledging to institute a moratorium on the hunt.  His opponent in the election, Republican candidate Kim Guadagno, supported the hunt, bringing hunters to rally to her side.

Critics of the hunt cheered, while proponents warned of an increase in the bear population and possible encounters with humans.

“In the past, the bear hunt has been expanded without local input or evidence that it is effective at controlling the bear population,” Murphy said in an email statement Thursday, echoing his words during the campaign. “My first concern will always be for public safety, but before authorizing another hunt we need a fuller understanding and proof it works better than non-lethal options in the state’s long-term bear management policies. As governor, my administration will institute a moratorium on the state’s bear hunt.”

The first black bear hunt this year in New Jersey was held in October for hunters using bow and arrow or muzzleloader firearms. Most of the hunting is done in Sussex and Warren Counties in the northwestern part of the state, but kills were also recorded in Passaic, Morris, and Hunterdon Counties.

In the first round, 243 bears were killed — a big decrease from 2016 when 562 bears were killed in the same time period. The second segment, from Dec. 4 through 9, will be limited to firearms.

On Monday, protesters plan to gather at Whittingham Wildlife Management Area in Sussex County, which is managed by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Some protesters were arrested during the first segment of the hunt in the fall.

Angi Metler, a director of the anti-hunting group BEAR (Bear Education and Resource), will be there. She believes the population can be lowered without killing.

“The number-one solution nationwide is keeping bears away from human food sources,” she said. “If you reduce their contact with human-derived food sources, it has a wonderful effect and it lowers their fertility rate.”

She said bear-proof garbage containers and other strategies would greatly reduce access to food.

“We like to call it contraception in a can,” Metler said. She lives in what she describes as “bear country” in Sussex County.

Metler said deer bait used by hunters also draws bears. So do bird feeders, and dog and cat food left outside.

When asked for comment, trustees of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, which represents hunters, trappers, fishermen, and other conservationists, issued a statement saying, “Bear hunting is justified by logical, sound science as recommended by biologists specifically trained in bear management, as opposed to fact-less sentiment created by the anti-hunting voices who dominate the media.”

It says controlling the number of black bears through hunting limits contact with humans, pets, and livestock. 

New Jersey’s bear hunt was paused from 2005 through 2010 under Jon Corzine’s administration. It resumed when Christie took office. Under current regulations, a hunter must purchase a permit and is allowed to kill one bear per segment. After a kill, a hunter must take the bear to one of five checking stations in Warren, Morris, and Sussex Counties.

The state runs a black bear research project, which has shown the animals to be highly reproductive with a high survival rate. As part of the research, biologists collect blood and tissue from bears captured during tagging. The DNA and blood samples give researchers a good idea how healthy the bear population is. Bears are tagged as part of research or when people call to report that one of the animals has become a nuisance.

A female bear in New Jersey on average gives birth to three cubs — higher than the national average of two, according to the DEP.  But researches have found a litter with six cubs — attesting to the bears’ fecundity in New Jersey.

Black bears have increased in population since the 1980s, according to the DEP. Their range also has increased out from the hills, mountains, and forests of northwestern New Jersey into the south and east.  There have been bear sightings in all of the state’s 21 counties.  However, most are concentrated in the more rugged northwestern part of the state.

Hunting culls those populations, say supporters, and lessens the chance of a dangerous human encounter, such as in 2014 when a 22-year-old Rutgers student was killed by a 299-pound bear while hiking in the Apshawa Preserve. However, attacks on humans are extremely rare.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, says incidents with bears “have gone down dramatically since the first October hunt in 2016.” Overall incidents have dropped 57 percent since January, compared with the same period last year. That includes a decrease in “Category 1” complaints when bears break into homes or vehicles — or attack livestock and honey hives.

The state has three categories of bear-human issues, with Category 3 being the least threatening, such as a resident reporting a bear in a tree. For most nuisance complaints,  Hajna said, “our policy is just to let the bear go back in the woods.”

Hajna agrees with Metler that reducing access to human food is important. The state conducts outreach efforts for residents and schools to educate them.

But Hajna said, as of now, the hunt is the most effective way of controlling the black bear population.

Keeping human food and garbage away from bears is a complex undertaking, he said. Municipalities would have to purchase, or require residents to purchase, bear-proof garbage cans. But the collection of bear-proof cans would present another problem. Many towns use subcontractors that collect trash through special plastic bins designed to be picked up by a mechanical arm and dumped into a truck. Making those bear-proof cans adaptable for pickup would be tricky for current trucks.

Meanwhile, Hajna said, the state aims to cull a certain ratio of bears each year, amounting to about 30 percent of tagged bears. That reduces the potential for human contact, while still sustaining a reproducible population.

In past years, the state had trouble reaching that 30 percent level. So, in 2016, it made two separate black bear hunting segments.

The first segment for this year reached only 12 percent, he said. As a result, the state said more hunting is needed this week. It’s possible the hunt could be extended into an additional week if the number still isn’t reached, he said.