New Jersey governors have regrettably too often sought to address human-bear conflict using trophy hunters—a technique not recommended by bear-conflict biologists (Matt Arco, “N.J. bear hunt returning soon as Murphy says he will end his ban,” Nov. 10, 2022). Instead, they should be pressing people to adopt “bear-aware” or “bear-smart” techniques as Colorado is doing.
It is not to his credit that Gov. Phil Murphy, who made multiple campaign promises not to hold bear hunts, has just announced that he was issuing an emergency rule to re-start a New Jersey black bear trophy hunt. The Fish and Game Council will soon determine the fate of New Jersey’s bears when they weigh this “emergency” hunt proposal. They should reject it in part because no emergency exists.
Bear trophy hunting does the state no credit, either. If the council goes along with this proposal, New Jersey is likely to see something similar to what happened in 2016, when Pedals, the beloved and famous upright-walking bear (because of injuries to his front paws), was killed by a bow hunter, along with more than 500 New Jersey bears, including tiny cubs. Pedals’ death was anything but humane. Bowhunters leave large numbers of wounded animals. Researchers have found up to 27% of deer shot by archers die slowly rather than from quick, clean kills. And black bears are even more difficult than deer to kill with an arrow because of their massive muscles and heavy bones.
Not only has New Jersey permitted this Robin Hood-era method of using bow and arrows and other weaponry in bear hunting, but it also permits the use of fetid bait piles to lure hungry bruins in for an easy shot. In late summer and fall, bears must gain 3 to 5 pounds per day to survive the entire winter without eating. Thus they are readily drawn to these baits made up of grease, pastries and even chocolate products, which are toxic to bears and other wildlife. What’s more, the use of bait unnaturally increases bear populations and reduces their hibernation times (meaning that bears are awake longer). Bait sites can result in disease transmission (such as rabies) between species, destroy habitats and can lead to lethal attacks on cubs by larger bears or other carnivores. And researchers say that by habituating bears to human foods, these baits increase human-bear conflicts.
Perhaps the governor thought his announcement during the election season would go unnoticed, but that didn’t happen. Bear sightings are no reason to invoke a trophy hunt. More than a dozen peer-reviewed studies from Europe and North American indicate that hunting bears does nothing to resolve human-bear conflicts. A presenter at the recent Human-Bear Conflict Workshop in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, even stated that after a new bear season was implemented in Ontario, Canada, and after hunters killed a significant number of bears, researchers found “no concomitant reduction in [human-bear] interactions or incidents.” In fact, they found the opposite—Ontario’s new bear-hunting season increased human-bear conflicts. This is the kind of research that should inform New Jersey’s wildlife policies.
New Jersey residents should understand that bear hunters aren’t targeting the bears foraging from unsecured garbage cans, easily accessible bird feeders and barbeque grills. Hunters are in the woods trying to land a big trophy over a bait pile, and they are motivated to display mounted bodies or body parts like heads, hides and paws. We know that bear-skin rugs are unacceptable to most Americans, and certainly to two-thirds of New Jersey voters. Last January, a Humane Society of the United States poll found that 76% of Americans disapprove of black bear trophy hunting. Most people, including New Jersey voters, enjoy photographing and viewing black bears, while less than 1% of New Jersey residents hunt—and there are even fewer who hunt bears. Every year, there are millions of interactions with black bears in North America, with very few incidents. Bears tend to avoid people.
We need to resolve human-bear conflicts using sound science, and we humans must adopt common sense behaviors. That means, if you live in bear country, bringing in bird feeders and substituting them with water features or bird houses. It means employing electric fencing around chicken coops and beehives, and ensuring that both pet and farm animal feed are unavailable to bears—either secured in buildings or behind electric fences. It means that farmers should use barns, sheds or electric-fenced pastures to protect their domestic animals. And if you hike, go in a group of three of more, make a lot of noise and carry bear spray.
We urge Gov. Murphy to give the New Jersey wildlife agency the ability to distribute grants to local communities, non profits and other partners sparking innovation and increasing law enforcement. Bears being in people’s back yards is really a people issue and we should focus our resources and energy on this people problem. Trophy hunting has no role to play in mitigating the kind of human-bear conflict characteristic of our state.
Elissa Frankis New Jersey State Director, State Affairs