A plan to reintroduce black bear hunting in designated areas of New Jersey will be discussed Tuesday at a public meeting held by the state’s Fish & Wildlife Council. No bear hunting has taken place in New Jersey since 2020.
The potential return of scheduled hunting periods comes in response to a fast-growing black bear population, particularly in Morris, Passaic, Sussex and Warren counties. An increasing number of human interactions have raised concerns that non-lethal methods to contain the population have fallen short.
Gov. Phil Murphy, a longtime opponent of black bear hunting, announced his administration’s consideration of the measure Thursday.
“From the data we have analyzed to the stories we have heard from families across the state, it is clear that New Jersey’s black bear population is growing significantly, and non-lethal bear management strategies alone are not enough to mitigate this trend,” Murphy said.
If approved, the initial bear hunting period would run from Dec. 5-10, coinciding with the six-day firearm hunting season for deer. If the black bear population isn’t reduced by 20%, a second period could be added the following week, from Dec. 14-17.
“Every New Jerseyan deserves to live in communities in which their children, families and property are protected from harm, and while I committed to ending the bear hunt, the data demands that we act now to prevent tragic bear-human interactions,” Murphy added. “We must responsibly adapt to the population with carefully regulated and strict bear population management strategies to ensure our communities and families are protected from the growing black bear population.”
The state Department of Environmental Protection estimates that New Jersey’s black bear population has climbed to about 3,000 and will grow to more than 4,000 in the next two years.
Bear incidents reported to the DEP from January through October increased by 237% compared to the same period in 2021.
During this 10-month period, there were 62 aggressive black bear encounters with humans, including one attack on a Sussex County woman who was retrieving her mail. The woman survived, but two of her dogs were killed by a group of bears.
There have been 12 dog attacks, 52 attacks on protected livestock, 12 home entries, 15 attempted home entries and 84 instances of property damage exceeding $1,000, DEP officials said.
Murphy signed an executive order suspending New Jersey’s black bear hunt on state lands in 2018, hoping to evaluate the feasibility of other strategies to contain the population and sequester the animals from areas used by people. But no bear hunting has taken place in New Jersey since 2020 due to the expiration of the state’s comprehensive black bear management plan, which encompassed popular hunting areas outside of the state’s 700,000 acres of game land.
The state previously reinstated the bear hunt in 2003, on a periodic basis, after a nearly three-decade stretch during which bear hunting had been outlawed. An annual bear hunt resumed in 2010. In 2015, former Gov. Chris Christie added a second hunting period in October, in addition to the one in December, permitting bow hunting along with firearms.
For years, environmental and animal rights groups have engaged in legal challenges to stop New Jersey’s bear hunt. They had considered Murphy an ally in that effort. The New Jersey Sierra Club said that bringing back a hunt would be a copout for failing to develop a more comprehensive alternative, including better trash management in areas with growing populations. The organization also questioned the interpretation of data on black bear sightings in recent years, attributing some of the uptick to trends related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Governor Murphy is failing to keep his commitment on stopping the bear hunt,” said Anjuli Ramos-Busot, New Jersey Director of the Sierra Club. “In order to reduce nuisance cases with bears, we need a real management plan that will deal with educating the public on how to live with bears and bear-proofing their property. Seeing bears in the woods does not provide justification for hunting them.”
Activism against the bear hunt reached an inflection point in October 2016, when Christie’s expansion of the bear hunt led to the killing of Pedals, an unusual black bear who walked upright on his hind limbs due to an injury. Pedals was occasionally seen and filmed by New Jersey residents in more remote areas, such as Oak Ridge and West Milford, and had become an internet sensation. Animal welfare advocates had hoped to have Pedals placed in a sanctuary, while other wildlife experts believed he had proven his ability to survive, and was better left to roam. He ultimately was shot by a hunter.
At the Fish & Wildlife Council meeting, officials will discuss the approval of the state’s comprehensive bear management policy and consider amendments to the game code that would bring back bear hunts. There will be an opportunity for public comment at the meeting, which will be held at 10 a.m. at the New Jersey State Museum, 205 W. State St. in Trenton.
Former New Jersey Sen. Ray Lesniak, a Democrat and longtime opponent of the bear hunt, has threatened to sue the Murphy administration if it moves forward with plans to bring back bear hunting.
The New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife says dense bear populations can lead to inadequate natural sources of food for the animals and territory for young males. Wider dispersion of bears increases the likelihood that they enter into areas where they can come into conflict with people. It also means the bears will seek sources of food such as trash, pet food, bird seed, agricultural crops, poultry and livestock.
“I share Gov. Murphy’s concerns for protecting public safety while supporting a healthy black bear population in New Jersey,” said New Jersey Fish and Game Council Chair Frank Virgilio. “Additionally, we have an obligation to conduct bear hunting in New Jersey both ethically and responsibly. The council’s job is to consider credible black bear management as well as the non-hunting public and their acceptance of our regulations.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, the Fish & Wildlife Council will discuss humane limitations. They include prohibiting the hunting of cubs under 75 pounds, as well as bears traveling packs with cubs beneath that weight threshold. The amendments to the game code also would include restrictions on baiting.
Without effective population control measures, wildlife officials fear that a greater number of female bears will continue to reproduce and continue dispersal in New Jersey.
The state DEP said a regulated bear hunt is the only feasible way to get the bear population under control.
“Black bears are part of New Jersey’s natural heritage, and a sustainable population contributes to the health of our larger ecosystem,” DEP Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette said. “Overpopulation and dispersal of bears to areas with less supportive natural habitat is a concern for public safety as well as the overall health and sustainability of the species. Given the black bear population and dispersion circumstances affecting New Jersey, a regulated hunt with humane limitations is necessary and appropriate.”