When the first dead bear of the morning was brought to the state Department of Environmental Protection check station at Whittingham Wildlife Management Area in rural Sussex County, a volunteer worker yanked out its teeth, explaining that’s one way to gauge the animal’s age.
This one, a female, was estimated to be almost two-years-old. She checked in at 202-pounds.
There’s is nothing nice and neat about hunting and a visit to a bear check station would not be everyone’s idea of a pleasant morning. But these stations are the focal point in what has been a steady battle between animal-rights’ activist and the Christie administration.
Protests may not be daily, but during bear hunting season, they remain loud and passionate. The drill doesn’t normally change. Protesters with signs proclaiming support for bears and disdain for hunters are generally kept a safe distance from those taking to the woods looking to bag a bear. The protesters and hunters occasionally taunt each other and there are periodic arrests.
This may seem like an old movie to some, and it is. It’s been going for eight years. But perhaps not much longer; incoming Governor Phillip Murphy says he will stop the bear hunt, making this year’s hunt and protest merely the ultimate scene prior to the final curtain.
Bears in New Jersey were nearly extinct 50 years ago. But thanks to environmental regulations that helped clean-up state woods and streams, and keep them that way, the population has rebounded exponentially. Bears have become a common sight – and to some, an irritating problem – in so-called bear country, which is basically the northwestern part of the state.
The state had its first bear hunt in decades in 2003 and another one in 2005. Then-Governor Jon Corzine stopped the hunt, saying it was unnecessary.
Gov. Chris Christie is not a hunter, but he displayed little respect for opponents, once saying in a conversation that a bear hunt was coming and that people would just have to deal with it.
The hunt started again in 2010 and has continued throughout the run of the Christie administration.
Either by design, or just coincidence, the administration further antagonized opponents by expanding the hunt beginning last year. Rather than a one-week bear hunt in December, the state also held a week-long bow-and-arrow bear hunt the last two Octobers.
With the sides so far apart in thinking, just about everything is in dispute.
The pro-hunting side says bears must be hunted because more and more of them are prowling around trash cans and residential areas. They say such close encounters can lead to tragedy, noting that a young man was killed by a black bear three years ago in West Milford. This was the first time in at least 100 years that a person in New Jersey was killed by a bear.
Opponents say the bear attack was an isolated event and that if people use common sense – don’t try to play with bears and secure their garbage – there’s no danger. And they also stress that having bears living in the most densely-populated state in the country is a good thing.
A billboard on Route 206 in Sussex County shows a photo of a bear and a cub. The blunt message is that a bear is not a “trophy,” but an animal’s mother.
Not surprisingly, there is disagreement over how many bears there are in New Jersey.
The state says there are an estimated 2,400 bears in New Jersey, although counting bears in the woods seems like a pretty inexact science.
Opponents say the bear population is much less than what the state claims and that hunting is just a way to decimate those that remain.
Anecdotal evidence can be sketchy to be sure, but here is some. I live in Roxbury Township, which would be considered “bear country.” Two years ago, I saw bears on about five different occasions. The last year or so, I haven’t seen any.
What is not in dispute is that the number of bears killed in New Jersey, or to use the DEP’s more benign term, “harvested,” may be on the decline.
There were 562 bears killed in last year’s two hunts.
This year, 244 were killed in October, and 85 through Tuesday of this week, for a total of 329. So, more than 200 bears would have to be taken over the next four days of the hunt to even match last year’s total.
Judging from the number killed during the first two days of this week’s hunt, that seems unlikely.
The first bear brought to the check station this morning in Sussex County was taken by Jamie, of Branchville. He did not give his last name.
Jamie said he shot the bear in a ravine near the Delaware Water Gap. He also hunts deer, but says it can be “rougher,” or more challenging to hunt bear.
As the carcass was measured and hoisted into the back of Jamie’s truck, the hunter said he planned to eat as much of the animal as he could, expressing a preference for bear stew.
That likely will be a dish Jamie won’t be able to enjoy next year. At least not in New Jersey.
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