New Jersey Bears Win Reprieve in 2004
from No Compromise Issue 26
 

In 1958, New Jersey opened its first regulated bear-hunting season. In 1970, after hunters wiped out black bears in New Jersey, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) halted the hunt.

As New Jersey’s bear population began to recover, efforts to re-establish the hunt, predictably, began gaining steam as well. But animal advocates fought back. In 1988, the first bear hunt ban bill was introduced in the New Jersey legislature, and animal advocates have been waging a war against the resumption of bear hunting ever since. Massive educational efforts throughout the 1990s successfully fought off several unofficial hunts. In 1997, when the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) held hearings throughout the state on the ‘management’ of black bears, hundreds came forward to express their outrage toward any form of bear hunting.

The DFW, the Fish and Game Council (FGC) and hunter groups forged ahead. They launched a successful bear slander campaign and solicited the public to report every bear sighting and encounter. It worked. Articles detailing bear encounters starting appearing in all our newspapers, making the bears Public Enemy #1. Emboldened by this media support, in March, 2000 the FGC, under the DFW, proposed to reopen the bear hunting season, including over 30 days of hunting with bows, guns and muzzleloaders.

DFW was caught off guard by the ensuing, massive public backlash, which forced then-governor Whitman to ask the DFW to cancel the hunt 8 days before it was due to start. This was our first official victory against bear hunting, and it raised the public's awareness of the DFW and FGC. Soon afterward, efforts to dismantle the FCG began popping up throughout New Jersey. Two years passed without any more hunt proposals, but the opposition continued to attack bears regularly.

Governor Whitman's plan to stop the bear hunting did contain one flaw: It allowed the killing of bears that presented any threat to people. Animal activists were generally not concerned with this, because black bears are typically timid and gentle creatures, and to date, no one in our state has ever been killed or seriously injured by a black bear.

But the DFW used the loophole in Whitman's plan to develop an internal policy that systematically kills bears, hoping to garner public support for a bear hunt. This policy became known as the “Category System.” Category One black bears -- defined as any bear coming within ten feet of a person or building and/or exhibiting behavior that is a threat to human safety or causing serious property damage -- constitute an immediate threat to life and property and are to be destroyed. Category Two black bears -- “nuisance” bears that are not an immediate threat to life and property -- may be treated with aversive conditioning or relocated. Category Three bears exhibit “normal” behavior in that they are not creating a nuisance and are not a threat to public safety.

Since the creation of the Category System, over 80 "Category One" bears have been killed, with each one being reported to the press. In 2003, heightened concerns about black bears gave FGC a renewed opportunity to put forth another hunt proposal. Governor James McGreevey, paying debts to developers, allowed the first black bear hunt in over 33 years to be held in December 2003.

The death toll of that hunt was 333 bears—35% of which were just cubs and yearlings, under 2 years old. Overall, hunters killed114 males and 219 females, the deaths of whom likely left many more cubs orphaned to die slowly and painfully. The press reported every kill, and pictures of dead bears covered the front pages of every local newspaper. The media attention was local, state, national and international. The public responded with intense and swift outrage, and the DEP held press conferences promising that McGreevey's administration would not hold another hunt.

DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell pledged to do everything within his power to stop a 2004 hunt. His efforts included writing to and meeting with the DFW and FGC before they tried to propose another hunt. But they ignored Campbell and refused to back down.

Undaunted, Campbell decided to withhold bear hunt permits and to close all DEP-controlled lands to bear hunting. In response, the Sportsmen's Federation and the Safari Club International filed lawsuits. The court rulings were mixed: While the appellate court judges ordered Campbell to start issuing the permits again, they upheld Campbell's authority to close DEP-controlled state lands. In the ruling, the judges stated that the Safari Club did not demonstrate "any public safety or other vital public interest that requires state lands be open to bear hunting," and the fact that the FGC set a 2004 bear season did not mean Campbell's order was arbitrary.

Campbell decided to appeal the appellate court's permit decision to the Supreme Court, and on December 2, four days before the bear hunt was to begin, the state Supreme Court reversed the appellate court's decision. It ruled in favor of DEP Commissioner Bradley, giving him the authority to withhold the bear hunt permits. In its ruling, the court said there was no current comprehensive black bear management plan and until the hunt could be proven to be scientifically justified, the hunt would be called off. The ruling can be viewed at http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/opinions/supreme/bear.pdf. We expect a comprehensive opinion from the Supreme Court within the next several months.


Take Action!
While this order gives Commissioner Campbell the authority he needs to call off the 2004 hunt, we may not be as fortunate next year. We need black bears to be protected permanently, and it is imperative that we continue to fight this battle on all fronts. New Jersey residents can keep the issue alive via letters to the editor and by demanding that legislators support the black bear protection bill (A.2704) and restructuring the FGC (A.2852) is critical to protecting black bears permanently.

For more details on how you can help the bear and to keep informed on an ongoing basis, please visit
www.nj-ara.org
and www.savenjbears.com.