New Jersey last had a black bear hunting season in 2005. At that time, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) estimated the state’s black bear population to be 1,600 animals. During the six-day season that year, hunters harvested 298 bears, down from the 328 bears taken during the 2003 hunt. Since that last hunting season, New Jersey’s bear population has grown, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)—parent agency of the DFW—now reports that bears are present in every county in the state.
The range of New Jersey’s black bears has grown from a concentration in the northwest section of the state in the late 1990’s, predominantly in Sussex and Warren counties, to a distribution that now includes all but the state’s most densely populated urban areas. Bear populations have expanded to the point that they are encroaching upon suburban areas, and the state DEP reports having received 1,262 bear-related damage and nuisance complaints from Jan. 1 to July 20 of this year. The number of complaints has increased about 20 percent from the same time period in 2008.
In fact, the bear population density in parts of New Jersey, which is the number of bears per square mile, is higher than most states tolerate. According to Dr. Len Wolgast, who taught wildlife biology at Rutgers University for more than 34 years and is a member of the New Jersey Fish and Game Council, the generally accepted optimum bear density is one bear per three square miles. In northwest New Jersey, the bear density is three bears per square mile. That translates to nine times the optimum density, and is the highest in the nation.
In an exclusive interview, Wolgast stated that New Jersey’s bear population is very healthy, with the state having trapped, tagged and released black bears weighing more than 700 pounds. He estimated that those same bears could weigh as much as 800 pounds as they begin to bed up for the winter. As a point of comparison, that is the weight of a medium-sized grizzly bear! He went on to say that the reproductive rate of New Jersey black bears is higher than the national average, resulting in an ever-expanding population.
When asked about over-population, Wolgast noted that black bears in New Jersey have exceeded the state’s “cultural capacity.” That is the capacity of the state to carry a species before significant problems arise between residents and members of that species. He stated that the bear population has created agricultural losses in areas including corn farming, fruit orchards, bee keeping, and farms that raise poultry and rabbits. He was very clear that it is detrimental to bears and people when bears are too comfortable around humans. Nuisance bears are shot, and residents are put at risk when bears invade homes and cars.
The Politics of Management
So, if the bears are doing well and obviously breeding and immigrating to the state, largely from Pennsylvania, why has there not been a black bear hunting season in New Jersey since 2005? The answer is simple: politics. Following the 2005 hunt, former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson, with the full support of Gov. Jon Corzine, ordered the DFW to develop a new Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy that had to be approved by the DEP commissioner. The black bear season would be governed by the findings of that policy. The ruling threw out the existing 2005 black bear policy, and the official policy reverted to the plan that was in place in 2000, which had no provisions for a bear season. Bowing to political pressure, no final policy has been issued to date, effectively blocking the possibility of any black bear hunting season.
In place of a hunting season, Jackson stated that non-lethal methods of bear management must be implemented and analyzed before allowing a hunt to proceed. The problem with that approach is that it does not work. When asked about population control, Wolgast dismissed outright the idea of non-lethal means as being effective in managing the bear population. He was very clear that hunting is the only way to maintain a balanced black bear population.
A study commissioned by the New Jersey DEP in 2009 regarding non-lethal means of controlling the black bear population stated, “Managing black bear populations using fertility control will be much more technically difficult and costly than in other wildlife species, such as deer and wild horses, where this approach has been successfully applied. This is a consequence of the difficulty of capture, lower density, and the variable and wide-ranging nature of bear movements. Fertility control is very unlikely to be a feasible means of managing black bear populations in New Jersey.”
The Push for a Hunt
With the failure of the present programs, pressure is growing from a number of sources to re-instate the bear hunt. A contingent of legislators, led by state Sens. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex/Morris/Hunterdon) and Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) and Assembly Members Alison Littell McHose (R-Sussex/Morris/Hunterdon) and Gary Chiusano (R-Sussex/Morris/Hunterdon), are pressuring the governor to reverse the three-year-old policy of attempting to control the bear population with non-lethal means. They cite the high number of bear complaints and the dangers presented when bears become too accustomed to human contact.
“It’s time Governor Corzine put aside politics and his personal feelings about hunting and look at the bigger picture,” said Oroho. “This is a serious matter of public safety. Adults and children alike in our communities are literally under attack because the bear population is not being adequately controlled. It’s obvious this administration’s alternate bear management policies are not working.”
Perhaps the most dramatic example of how fearless bears have become of humans in New Jersey is the case of a Vernon man who had his sandwich stolen by a bear as he packed his car for a trip to New Hampshire. Coming up from behind, the bear knocked the man to the ground and stood over him, holding the sandwich in its mouth. Luckily the victim was able to drive the bear away with a few well-placed kicks before he could have been seriously hurt.
“The prospects for a human tragedy have never been greater, as aggressive bears are chasing children, knocking adults to the ground, and breaking into homes and garages,” said McHose. “Yet Governor Corzine refuses to take off his blinders. Instead of sitting back and hoping for the best, he should listen to the wildlife experts, study the scientific data, and take appropriate and responsible action.”
Chiusano said Corzine is allowing anti-hunting groups to dictate New Jersey’s black bear management policies, rather than listening to the state’s wildlife biologists, who have said a bear hunt is necessary.
“It’s clear Governor Corzine’s current bear management policies are an abject failure. But instead of implementing a reasonable and science-based policy to deal with the escalating bear crisis, it’s also apparent he is allowing animal rights and anti-hunting groups to dictate public policy to the detriment of public safety,” said Chiusano. “The governor needs to take this matter seriously and put it in the hands of wildlife experts where it belongs.”
There has been a push by hunting advocacy groups to re-instate the bear hunt as well. NRA backs a bear hunt in New Jersey, and the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, Safari Club International (SCI), and the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance unsuccessfully filed suit in 2006 to overturn New Jersey’s bear-hunting ban. As recently as Oct. 13, SCI and the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs again filed suit to force New Jersey to take action on black bear management.
On the grassroots level, a group of hunters have started a website called www.njbearhunt.com. The website not only supports the bear hunt, but also provides clear information on why the hunt is needed, explains the consequences of not establishing a season, and works to debunk the fallacies regarding the bear hunt that are spread by anti-hunters and uninformed members of the media.
A group has even been formed inside the New Jersey legislature to lobby for the hunt. Recognizing that New Jersey’s hunters, anglers and trappers are often opposed by vocal and well-organized anti-hunting forces, state Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) created the New Jersey Angling and Hunting Conservation Caucus (NJAHCC), hoping to give sportsmen a better voice in the legislature. The NJAHCC is an advocate of reinstating the bear hunt.
“What we’re having now is bears that are running the risk of starving and bears that are becoming a public safety issue. ... These poor animals have less space to live in and less food to feed on,” Sweeney said.
The current policy of non-lethal means of population control has no track record of success and does nothing to deter bears from invading homes, cars and picnic areas. However, hunting is a sure way to create just the right kind of barrier between bears and humans. By actively pursuing the bears during an established season with defined bag limits, the animals will regain their natural fear of humans and will be more reluctant to engage people near their homes.
The DFW has long advocated for a bear season. Prior to being overturned by the state DEP, the original plans called for an annual bear hunt that would coincide with the state’s deer season. In fact, the current regulations tentatively provide for a bear season, in the event that a hunt is authorized. The Fish and Wildlife Digest states, “The black bear hunting season is closed until the DEP Commissioner approves a comprehensive black bear management policy. Should this policy contain provisions for a black bear season, information will be posted on Fish and Wildlife’s web site.”
In fact, the DFW has been very proactive in extending or establishing hunting seasons for over-populated or nuisance game animals. Witness New Jersey’s extended deer seasons, the areas where an unlimited number of antlerless deer may be taken, new rules allowing the use of crossbows and Sunday bowhunting, and the newly established season for feral hogs in Gloucester County. Only the politicians can answer why bears have been exempted from Fish and Wildlife’s recent pro-hunting policies.
What will it take to restart the black bear hunting season in New Jersey? One sure way is a change of governors. Corzine is up for re-election on Nov. 3, and both Republican candidate Chris Christie and independent Chris Daggett support the hunt. Beyond using their votes to make a change in the state house, New Jersey hunters will have to rely on lobbying and communicating with their representatives, and generating more public awareness of the need for a bear season. It is unfortunate that tried and true wildlife management practices, science and logic seem to have no impact on policy makers.