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New Jersey Bear Hunt Stirs Controversy - 2003-12-26

Hunters in New Jersey killed nearly 300 black bears in a week recently during the state's first bear hunt in 33 years. Wildlife officials hoping to reduce bear-human interaction are pleased with the outcome, but protesters are upset that alternative control measures were not tried first.

New Jersey's bear country is in the northwest corner of the state, where New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey meet. It's a mountainous part of the state but it's also a section where new homes are springing up for New York-bound commuters who hop onto Interstate 80.

Just up a snow-covered trail from Route 23 in the Hamburg Wildlife Management Area, a hunter who only wants to be identified as Walter points out fresh bear tracks in the snow. "He's big. He might even be the one I saw this morning," he says. "He's going right into the people's yard. You can see their house, 100 yards [90 meters] away, he's going right to it."

Walter had no luck, but at the bear check station Scott Ritchlin pulled in with a 47-kilo bear in the back of his pick up truck. Hunters are required to bring in their kill to be weighed and measured by wildlife biologists.

New Jersey's black bear population is booming. It's estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 of the animals now live in the state, and their interactions with people are increasing. More bears than ever are foraging for food in residential areas. State officials say bears broke into homes 58 times this year and tried to get into 50 cars.

At the check station, Scott Ritchlin says since bears don't have any natural predators in New Jersey and the population grows by 500 to 700 cubs a year, a hunt is the only realistic solution. "As long as there's food, they're not going to den up, and if we're not going to harvest them, something has to be done," he explains. "Otherwise they're just going to keep on being a nuisance."

New Jersey state officials issued over 5,000 bear hunting permits for the six-day season. But their announcement of the first bear hunt since 1970 also sparked an organized and vocal opposition. A couple dozen protesters held a quiet picket around the bear check station. They say fewer bears would be looking for food near homes if people did more to keep the animals out - storing garbage in bear-proof trashcans, for example, and not leaving pet food or bird seed out in their yards. Santos Hawksblood, an Apache Indian who moved to this part of New Jersey four years ago, is not opposed to all hunting, like some of the protesters, but he resents hunters who are looking for a trophy or bear skin rug instead of killing animals to survive. "There's nothing like a Big Mac or New York steak to me," he says. "The difference is, we [Indians] hunted out of necessity. This is not necessity. This is encroaching on their land."

According to New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Director Marty McHugh, even though these bears are being shot in state parks and wildlife areas, many of them are the very ones neighbors complain about.

"There are no deep-woods bears in the state," he explains. "These bears in the deeper woods areas are ranging out to feed in neighborhood and the suburbs and on the farms."

Mr. McHugh points out that the total numbers of bears killed this week was about what he expected, given the weather and time of year. He adds that state officials re-evaluated whether to continue the hunt at the end of each day. Hunt opponents are hoping this will be the last black bear hunt in New Jersey. They are pushing a plan to use a prescription sterilization drug to keep the bear population from getting too big. But state Fish and Wildlife Director Marty McHugh says any such solution is probably five years off.