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Loaded for bear: will the drama surrounding NJ's first bruin hunt in three decades preclude a sequel?

Despite some interesting twists and last-minute lawsuits, New Jersey's much anticipated black bear season--the state's first in 33 years--concluded December 13, 2003, with more than 300 bruins being harvested.

The Garden State had previously managed its bruin population--estimated at up to 3,200 animals prior to the hunt--through public education efforts, aversive conditioning, trap-and-transfers and the euthanization of bears posing serious threats to the public. But eventually the hunt came to be seen by many as a necessity because of the increasing number of human/bear conflicts.

In 2003 alone, there were approximately 1,400 nuisance bear reports and damage complaints. While many of these were minor incidents such as bird feeder raids and trash can invasions, there were also two reported attacks on humans, as well as 58 home break-ins, 21 attempted house entries and 53 bear/vehicle collisions.

According to the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife, 328 bears--209 females and 119 males--were taken during the six-day hunt. DFW Director Martin McHugh told PETERSEN'S HUNTING that the harvest was right in line with the numbers the agency had previously projected. Prior to the hunt, DFW had estimated that the hunter harvest rate could range anywhere from 3 to 8 percent, equaling 165 to 440 bears.

"For the most part, we had a very safe season, and the hunters conducted themselves in a very positive manner," McHugh said.

Included in the harvest were 16 bears previously tagged as nuisance animals. New Jersey hunters turned up some real bruisers as well.

"Considering the dressed weights coming in [to the check stations], we had a number of bears in the 600-pound range," said McHugh, who saw one bruin that likely weighed 630 pounds live weight.

Although the hunt itself went well, the days leading up to the season opener were filled with legal wranglings as a handful of lawsuits were filed to try to disrupt the season.

In one case, the New Jersey Superior Court declined a request from anti-hunters to prohibit the season from taking place on state forests and parks. Another suit, filed by the Fund for Animals, was successful in delaying the hunt in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

The latter lawsuit alleged the National Park Service, which manages the national recreation area, did not follow the correct procedures before allowing the hunt to take place in the Delaware Water Gap. According to information on the DFW's website, the Fund for Animals claimed the NPS and the Secretary of the Interior violated the National Park Service Organic Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

On December 5, three days before the hunt was to begin, U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton, citing the need to have time to review the case, issued a restraining order, temporarily halting the hunt in the Water Gap. The judge's decision meant that hunters were not allowed to pursue bears on some 35,000 acres of public property--which is home to a large population of black bears--on the first day of the hunt. Early on the second day of the season, however, Walton lifted the order.

Lawsuits weren't the only issue threatening to disrupt the bear hunt, though. The DEP also learned prior to the hunt that protesters were planning to target young hunters wanting to participate in the season. In response, the agency made the decision--only days before the hunt was set to begin--to revoke hunting permits issued to nearly 280 youth hunters ages 10-15, undoubtedly upsetting many youngsters.

According to McHugh, emotions were running high on both sides of the bear hunt issue. "We wanted to have as sale a season as possible We were concerned there could be protest activity directed at young hunters," the director said.

While it's impossible to know for certain if antis would have targeted the youngsters, protesters did show up at various locations during the season to display their displeasure--the culmination of months of protest and vocal opposition that began last spring when the Fish and Game Council first proposed the hunt.

New Jersey's bruin hunt, which took place over a 1,557-square-mile area in the northwestern part of the state, was open to shotgun and muzzleloader hunters who completed one of the state's mandatory bear hunting seminars held in October and November.

While up to 10,000 bear permits could have been issued for the season, only 5,586 were given out by the department.

"We didn't expect that we'd get 10,000 applications," McHugh said. "The hunt was fairly conservatively designed."

Hunter participation and harvest goals were met, but there are other issues for the state to ponder.

"The story's not out yet as to how this hunt is going to impact nuisance complaints," McHugh said. "I hope that it has a positive impact and reduces some of those complaints."

While it may be a while until officials know if the hunt will help with human/bear conflicts, there's still another question looming on the horizon: Should New Jersey hold another hunt this year?

As of press time, DFW officials had not even begun to consider that matter.

"We're all still trying to catch our breath," McHugh said.

2004 Application Deadlines

Arizona: Big game, June 8

Idaho: Deer, elk pronghorn, fall bear and fall turkey, May 31.

Iowa: Nonresident any-deer license, June 6.

Minnesota: Bear, May 7 Moose, June 18.

Montana: Moose, sheep and goat, May 1. Deer, elk and antelope, June 1.

North Dakota: Deer, June 4. Fall turkey, June 30.

Oregon: Controlled hunts for deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and pronghorn May 15.

Utah: Moose, pronghorn, June 21.

Washington: Elk, special deer, mountain goat, moose, bighorn sheep ad fall turkey, June 20.

Go to WWW/HUNTINGMAG.COM and click on "Hunter's Calendar" for more states.
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Title Annotation:Expeditions
Author:Demko, Mark
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Date:May 1, 2004
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