How legislation motivated by bear hunt politics threatens all New Jersey hunting and ended the careers of two anti-hunt legislators.
Among the most serious threats now facing New Jersey sportsmen is legislation that would set the stage to end all hunting and fishing by removing farmers, biologists and sportsmen from the State Fish & Game Council, and instead allow the Governor to make unrestricted political appointments of animal "rights" extremists in their place.
Imagine what would happen if executives of PETA and ALF were suddenly in charge of setting conservation goals and game seasons, and you'll begin to understand why New Jersey sportsmen have mobilized like never before in opposition to A3275 and S2041. These bills would politicize wildlife management and replace science with squeamish liberalism.
Bears in the driveway at the author's New Jersey home
New Jersey's Fish & Game Council was created by statute in 1945, and has the independent authority to set conservation goals and establish game seasons. There are 11 members in total, who must consist of 3 farmers, 6 sportsmen, one person knowledgeable in land use and soil conservation, and an endangered species state committee chairman. The governor makes the appointments but has very little discretion because he is forced by statute to pick from candidates recommended by other organizations, including a sportsmen's group. Geographical representation of different locations is also a factor.
The new legislation would reduce the Council to 7 members, all of whom would be appointed at the governor's greatly expanded discretion. None would be required to be farmers, sportsmen, or biologists under the legislation originally proposed. Geographical considerations would be eliminated, and the legislation would force the Council to investigate non-lethal wildlife management methods. It would also delete "public recreation" and "food supply" as a basis for setting game seasons and conservation policies. In short, it's an animal activist's dream.
The legislation was introduced by two liberal lawmakers who were outraged by the reinstatement of brief black bear hunting seasons in New Jersey in 2003 and 2005, ending a 33-year ban on hunting the bruins in the Garden State.
From 1970 until 2003, New Jersey's bear population went completely unchecked, until a spate of dramatic, predatory attacks showed that a rapidly increasing bear population (estimated at 3,500 - 5,000) and a shrinking habitat were a recipe for disaster and a threat to public safety. The most widely publicized attacks included the 2001 stalking and mauling of a young boy, numerous home and vehicle break-ins, and the 2002 killing of a five-month old baby girl who was yanked head-first from her stroller by a hungry bear just a few miles outside of New Jersey's northern border.
When the Fish & Game Council scheduled a limited bear hunt in 2003, even the mainstream media acknowledged the need, and then-governor Jim McGreevey (who was admittedly opposed to bear hunting) was forced to concede. The five-day December hunt netted only 328 black bear, but set off a firestorm among radical animal activists, who blocked entrances to public lands, vandalized state conservation vehicles, and relentlessly harassed the Governor. Legal wrangling prevented a 2004 bear hunt, but a follow-up bear season in 2005 netted under 300 black bear and further enraged animal activists.
Following these hunts, animal activists took to both the airwaves and the courts in an attempt to pre-empt future hunts. They publicly decried the presence of sportsmen on the Fish & Game Council, advocating replacement of sportsmen with animal activists on the Council.
Many lawmakers dismissed these activists as extremists willing to tolerate human injury or even death from bear attacks rather than harm a single bear. But a sympathetic ear was found in State Senator Ellen Karcher (D-12) and Assemblyman Mike Panter (D-12), whose district is far removed from the heart of New Jersey's bear country.
Karcher and Panter introduced S2041 and A3275 as lead sponsors, later explaining that it was intended only to address bear hunting in New Jersey, despite its likely effect of stacking the Council that sets all game seasons with animal activists.
The legislation was introduced in 2006 but remained stalled in committee for lack of support until mid-2007, when a full-scale assault on law abiding gun owners and sportsmen was launched by the New Jersey Assembly in the middle of an election year. Some New Jersey politicians believe that attacking sportsmen actually helps them get re-elected.
In the midst of efforts to ban .50 caliber firearms (including in-line muzzle loaders), ration guns, and over-regulate ammunition, the Council legislation was sneakily transferred to another Assembly committee where it had enough support to be passed out of committee with minor amendments in June.
But in pushing the legislation in an election year, Karcher and Panter made a serious miscalculation that ultimately cost them their jobs as elected officials.
New Jersey sportsmen mobilized visibly and vocally, with many hundreds showing up at rallies in Karcher and Panter's district to protest in the weeks leading up to the election. This prompted one astute Assemblywoman, Linda Greenstein (D-14), to withdraw her name as a co-sponsor. Greenstein was re-elected, but Karcher and Panter were retired from public service by a significant margin, despite the infusion of millions of campaign dollars to save their seats. Even New Jersey's mainstream media attributed the defeat to New Jersey sportsmen.
While the defeat of Karcher and Panter was both a significant victory and a wake-up call to other legislators, their legislation remains a serious pending threat, especially during the November-December "lame duck" voting session during which Karcher and Panter will still be in office and have nothing left to lose. It is imperative that sportsmen keep up the pressure and communicate their continuing opposition to their elected officials.
Scott L. Bach is President of the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs and a member of the NRA Board of Directors.