Black bears in New Jersey are once again in the crosshairs of hunters’ scopes. Two years after a de facto ban on such killings went in effect, Governor Phil Murphy announced an emergency rule to revive the practice following reports of a growing population and increased sightings. The subsequent hunt is slated to start this week, and the state hopes to kill 20 percent of the tagged bear population over a five-day period.
Conservation groups have lambasted the move and called out its hypocrisy. Murphy had committed to banning the black bear hunt when he ran for office. Now, the governor and the state’s wildlife council contend that the increase in reports of nuisance bears is a recipe for conflict.
While the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club took part in a previous campaign to stop the bear hunt, its director, Anjuli Ramos, understands the need to reduce dangerous encounters between bears and people. However, indiscriminately killing bears is not the way, she says.
“The irony of this is that these bears that are causing the problems, the hunt is not going to kill those bears,” said Ramos. “Hunters go deep in the woods to seek out these bears. So, the bears that are used to going to one specific house because they know that there’s going to be trashed overnight won’t be hunted.”
Instead, many advocates say that nonlethal measures should be prioritized. While the governor’s office stated that nonlethal measures alone aren’t effective, state officials have provided no data to support this claim.
“What we really tried to campaign for is that moratorium on the bear hunt until New Jersey gets its act together with a nonlethal management plan, which includes waste management, education, enforcement,” said Taylor McFarland, the conservation program manager for the New Jersey Chapter. “And that really didn’t happen even when Governor Murphy implemented his executive order to ban hunting on private land, and the state received like $1.3 million for nonlethal management for bears.”
Meanwhile, cities across the West, like Boulder and Banff, are proving that with the right outreach and engagement, coexistence is possible. According to Brenda Lee, the founder and president of the Colorado Bear Coalition, bear-resistant trash containers have been most effective at reducing the number of bears that have to be euthanized in Boulder.
A study from 2018, conducted by researchers at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, found that trash-related conflicts were 60 percent lower in areas with secured trash. That same study found that the promotion of proper bear-resistant containers also reduced the perceived threat that bears pose to the public. One group, called the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, has tried to make the process of acquiring proper effective containers easier by testing and reviewing them for the public. In general, they must have a locking mechanism, be free of cracks or damage, and be able to withstand the force of the repeated compressions that bears often use to crack things open, also called the CPR method.
Additional recommendations, says Lee, included removing bird feeders, fruit trees, and pet foods, and protecting livestock and farm animals with electric fencing. However, none of these strategies work, she said, if the rules aren’t being promoted and enforced. “Education alone is not enough … what also has to happen is the city needs to be on board on what things the community needs to do to reduce attractants and increase deterrents,” said Lee. “Critically important is for the city to dedicate an enforcement officer to ensure that policies are enforced, especially for proper use of bear-resistant carts.”
There are also a plethora of science-based reasons why nonlethal measures should be prioritized, says Wendy Keefover, the carnivore protection senior strategist for the Human Society. For instance, in several studies led by Joseph Northrup, a scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, researchers found that killing large numbers of bears can exacerbate, not reduce, conflict. Black bears are highly sentient and have complex social structures. Mothers often nurse their cubs for several months and spend up to two years taking care of their cubs, teaching them how to survive, said Keefover. When orphaned, cubs lose their main way of learning how to forage.
Elissa Frank, the New Jersey state director for the Humane Society, says that black bears are a beloved, charismatic animal in the state, the most densely packed state in the country, a testament to their adaptability and resilience. At a recent hearing last month, she said the overwhelming majority of people opposed the hunt. During the presentation, the state used a recent report that cited an over 200 percent increase in bear incidences between last year and this year to justify having a hunt using emergency measures, a necessity needed to bypass the current ban on hunting. They asserted that bears pose an imminent threat to human safety.
The data, however, doesn’t support this claim. Of the thousands of reports, only one included a human attack, where the person’s injuries weren’t life-threatening. The largest increase was in a category broadly called “nuisance,” which, according to many advocates, ranges from mere sightings of bears in the woods to seeing them rummage through backyard bins.
Research from the Animal Protection League of New Jersey has found no correlation between incident reports and population. In some years, the population is high, but incidents are low, and in others, the population is low while incidents are high. If the reduction of 20 percent of the tagged population isn’t met by the 10th, the state plans to extend the hunt until the 17th. Governor Murphy filed a motion to extend it just a day after instituting the emergency measure, which expires after 60 days.
This month, the extension rule will go through a formal process that will allow for public comments, which ends on February 3. In January, the state will hold a public hearing on the motion to extend the black bear hunt.
Conservation groups, including the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, the Humane Society of the United States, and Friends of Animals, filed a joint lawsuit on November 29, because they say the state failed to provide for a comment period for the emergency measure. They also say the new rule is arbitrary and capricious because bears don’t actually pose a danger to people. The following day, the court allowed their emergent motion to proceed.
What’s needed now, argues Brian Hackett, the legislative affairs manager at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, is for a wildlife commission to stop prioritizing consumptive values that frequently look to killing animals as the primary tool for wildlife management.
“The state agencies, like the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, are essentially run by hunters,” says Hackett. “And when you look at that systemic stacking of the decks … that benefits an ultra-minority of hunters over the super majority of the public that does not hunt … you get these situations, and I think the New Jersey black bear hunt is a perfect example of that.”