Wednesday, August 10, 2005

ENV: New Jersey Bears

As Bear Complaints Rise, New Jersey Considers a Hunt
By JOHN HOLL, August 10, 2005 , The New York Times


ROBBINSVILLE, N.J., Aug. 9 - With complaints about nuisance bears up significantly this year, New Jersey's Fish and Game Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to recommend that the state hold a bear hunt in December.

State biologists estimate that as many as 3,400 bears now roam New Jersey, the nation's most densely populated state, and say a hunt is the most effective way to control the increasingly troublesome population. Two bears were killed last weekend in Sussex County in northwest New Jersey after one broke into a house and another broke into a shed.

"We are going to have a large population of bears way into the future. It's a prolific problem," said Martin J. McHugh, the director of the state's Division of Fish and Wildlife. "Our aim is to reduce the growth of the population."

But a hunt is likely to provoke controversy, as it did two years ago in the first hunt in New Jersey in 33 years. Animal welfare groups tried unsuccessfully in the courts to block the hunt and then held protests as hunters went into the woods.

The decision to hold a hunt is now up to Bradley M. Campbell, the commissioner of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, which includes the Fish and Game Council. Mr. Campbell blocked a hunt last year, though the council recommended one. But he said Tuesday that he probably would approve a hunt if he finds a plan proposed by the council to manage the bear population acceptable.

Last year, several hunting groups sued the state, contending that Mr. Campbell had overstepped his authority by blocking the hunt. Mr. Campbell said then that a hunt was unnecessary and that the agency would rely on public awareness campaigns and contraceptive programs to control the bear population.

The State Supreme Court sided with Mr. Campbell and said a hunt could not be held until the state adopted a comprehensive plan to manage its bears. Mr. Campbell said such a plan was under review and would be released for public comment next month.

"We will only proceed with a hunt after the public process is complete," Mr. Campbell said.

From Jan. 1 to July 8 this year there were 677 damage and nuisance complaints involving black bears in 17 of the state's 21 counties. During the same period last year there were 424 complaints, according to the state.

"The bear population has clearly escalated," said Ernest Hahn, the chairman of the Fish and Game Council. "Bears, quite frankly, are causing a number of interactions that are not desirable."

Last month, a female black bear wandered into a campsite in High Point State Park and tugged at a sleeping bag with a camper inside. It was later captured and killed.

Of the two bears killed by state fish and game employees last weekend, one, a sow without cubs, broke through a window of an enclosed porch in Hardyston Township twice in one night. Another sow, also without cubs, broke into a shed at a camp in Frankford, N.J. No injuries were reported, but officials concluded the bears were hazards. The bears were trapped and then euthanized.

So far this year nine bears have been euthanized. Eleven were euthanized in 2004, according to the state.

Mr. Campbell said the department was still pursuing other bear management strategies like contraception. A separate plan calls for trapping and removing bears found in " a nonsuitable habitat, not appropriate for any wild animal population."

Hunting groups applauded the move by the council, but there were also critics.

"I think there is too much knee-jerk reaction and not enough real work on what has to get done," said Jeff Tittle, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, which opposes the hunt. "The state is just not doing enough. There needs to be better plans in place."

In 2003, 328 bears were killed during the hunt. In 2004, when Mr. Campbell called a second hunt unnecessary, he contended the bear population was about 1,600, though several independent studies estimated that the number was closer to 3,200.

This year state biologists say that of the estimated 3,400 bears in the state, roughly 1,600 are within the proposed hunt area, a 580-square-mile area in the northwest part of the state, north of Route 78 and west of Route 287. If approved by Mr. Campbell, the hunt would be Dec. 5 through Dec. 11.

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