The Bear Necessities

Environmentalists and conservationists are demanding that Governor Phil Murphy make good on his promise to end the state’s bear hunt, or they will call for voters to abstain from voting for Democratic state legislators. 

The League of Humane Voters of New Jersey and their New Jersey Black Bear Protection Coalition hosted a Zoom conference Tuesday. The purpose was to announce that they will be asking residents, and Democratic voters in particular—especially those in contested races—to urge Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette to put the brakes on the hunt.  They want LaTourette to toss what they called a “flawed and overwhelmingly opposed bear hunt policy” which was approved by the Fish and Game Council last September. 

League of Humane Voters of New Jersey Legal Director Doris Lin said, “In November of 2022, the Council inflated the bear population estimates and convinced the governor to approve an ‘emergency’ bear hunt, conveniently, mere days after the election that year, in an astonishingly disappointing reversal which many in Governor Murphy’s base viewed as politically expedient and deeply misguided.”  

The League said that they will “hold Governor Murphy’s administration and incumbent legislators up for election in November accountable in a new campaign to stop the highly controversial bear hunt. Our members are outraged that seven hunts, killing 1,064 bears, have happened under Democratic majority leadership in New Jersey. Murphy’s administration will have held 15 hunts after he’s out of office, 5 more than Governor Christie.” 

Jeff Tittel, long-time environmental activist, said, “The reason I’m here is because, as somebody who’s had a home in bear country for close to forty years where we haven’t had any problems because we know what we’re doing, we’re here today to talk about why Governor Murphy has broken his commitment and his promise to the people in New Jersey when he ran for governor. He said that he would end the bear hunt. Instead, he has had a bear hunt every year except for the year he decided to run for reelection. Because of the public outcry that opposed the hunt, he decided to cancel it for one year. Now it’s back again and this hunt would continue for five years, which means that it would tie the hands of the next governor and be 10 hunts on top of the 15 he’s already had, and the 1000s of bears that have already been killed.” 

Tittel said that the purpose of the bear hunt was to decrease the population of aggressive and nuisance bears.  The purpose, however, is no longer valid, Tittel asserted, because the bear population is down, and bear complaints have declined by 45%.  He said that the number of nuisance bears has also declined by 45%.  “The numbers this year are very similar to what they were in 2021,” Tittel said. “Only last year, when people were pushing for a hunt–it was also a very warm summer–had the numbers gone up. The other important part is that, historically, the Division of Fish and Wildlife has always said that in bear country, in the top six counties where the bears are, there are about 3,500 bears—some years, they’ve gone up to 4,500, even 5,000. Now they say there are 1,600. That means we have half the number of bears that they normally would say. So, it shows that the bear hunts are reducing the population dramatically.” 

Tittel said that this presented a good opportunity to stop the bear hunt and start implementing more intelligent bear management plans in the state.  Components of such a plan would include things like garbage and waste policy, educating the public about how to live in a place that has bears and “bear-proof” their property.  He said that non-lethal means can be employed to train bears to avoid people. 

Harsh words for the governor then followed.  “Quite frankly, after six years of the governor basically lying to the people in New Jersey, were saying enough is enough. The governor’s actions are unbearable and we’re here today to tell the legislature which has the power to stop a hunt. They can call up any regulation through what’s called an ‘oversight process’ and even block regulations. They did it when Governor Christie was trying to weaken rules in the highlands to allow for more development. We need the legislature to act. There’s also been a fair education bill that’s been kicking around for years. It hasn’t even had a hearing in a long time or even reforming the Fish and Game Council.” 

Even though many members of the state legislature and residents in general oppose the bear hunt, Tittel said that the legislature needs to take action.  If they do not, he warned, there will be political consequences, specifically for Democrats.  The Commissioner or the Governor can still kill the hunt and avoid the fallout, he said.  “We need the legislature to stand up. If they don’t stand up for the bears, why should we stand up for them? This is a legislature that has done very little on the environment. We have a budget that this governor pushed forward which cuts the DEP budget, has less money for conservation officers, less money for open space, less money for clean water, and yet here they are again with another bear hunt.” 

Voting for local office would be fine, the environmentalists said, but in the event the bear hunt continues, they are calling upon voters to abstain from voting for Democrats on the state level.  This list would include districts such as LD-4, LD-11, LD-14, LD-16, LD-17, LD-18, LD-36, and LD-38.  Tittel admits that some of the Democratic lawmakers are generally considered “allies” in these districts, but their ultimate aim is to put pressure to deliver results on stopping the bear hunt. 

This does not constitute an endorsement for Republicans, however. “The Republicans are terrible, but the Democrats have done nothing,” Tittel said. “The governor played politics with bears when he ended the hunt in the year that he was running for election. We cannot tolerate this governor continuing to play politics, whether bears or whales or anything else. We need him to stand up and if he won’t then we have to get the legislature to stand up.”  If people choose not to vote for Democratic incumbents as a result and their opponents get in, “That is what they have sown. We’re standing up for the bears and we want the legislature to stand with us. If bears get dismembered in October, we’re going to remember in November.” 

A demonstration is being planned to protest the bear hunt in Paramus, where environmentalists will gather on September 23 to take their voices to the streets. 

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