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New Jersey has a complicated history with black bear hunting. Bear hunts were halted in 2004 and again between 2006 and 2009 because of law suits filed by anti-hunting groups. During the 3 year period between 2006 and 2009, bear nuisance complaints increased significantly and the hunt was reinstated in 2010 to manage the population. Nuisance bears are the primary reason why the hunt remains in effect today.
On Monday, the fifth consecutive year of the New Jersey black bear hunting season began and will last six days. The number of hunting permits slid from a record setting 7,900 in 2010, to 6,400 in 2013, to 6,300 permits this year. While interest in the hunt seemed to be dwindling, a recent bear attack, which left a student dead, brought the issue back in to the public eye.
Dash Patel, a Rutgers University student, was mauled by a bear while hiking in Apshawa Preserve, a nature reserve in the highlands of northern New Jersey. His death reignited the controversial debate over bear hunting and its effectiveness as a management tool. Those who oppose the hunt feel that there is too much focus on killing the animals and not enough on teaching the public about how to handle encounters.
Additionally, animal-rights advocates contend that baiting practices sometimes used during hunts only exacerbates human-bear conflict. They argue that it adds to the number of “problem bears” because the bears that are not harvested at the site learn to eat human food and then seek it out elsewhere, like in neighborhoods and campsites.
“It’s science versus emotion,” said John Rogalo, the vice-president of the northern region of the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. “You’ve got way more bears than the land will support.”
Still, anti-hunting groups stand firm to the idea of education as the solution. They also believe problem bears should be tranquilized and then “conditioned” to avoid human inhabited areas. Hunters, on the other hand, argue that a longer hunting season could thin the numbers in the northwest part of the state, where bears are overpopulated.
New Jersey is the most densely populated state in regards to the number of black bears. In 2010, there were 3,400 bears living north of Interstate 80, the upper one-eighth of the state, according to a state Fish and Game Council report. Since reinstatement of the hunt, human-bear conflict reports of Category 1 bears, which are bears labeled as aggressive and dangerous, fell from 235 in 2010 to 129 in 2013. However, there are still numerous reports of problem bears that cause property damage and the people are calling for their removal.
“As a general rule we have slowed the population, but that doesn’t mean we are done,” Kelcey Burguess, principal biologist and leader of the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s black bear project said. “We need to make sure we’re managing the population on more of a statewide level. The hunt is effective, but it isn’t effective as it could be.” The state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife is expected to adopt a new bear management plan this summer.
With bear populations continuing to rise, more frequent occurrences of property damage, car accidents, and now the loss of life, maintaining a bear hunting season seems paramount. Annual hunting of bears can keep numbers controlled. Sustainable management of free-ranging bears is a top priority and is possible as long as the comprehensive bear management plans are science-based.
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