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N.J. bear hunt delayed as legal battle begins

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N.J. bear hunt delayed as legal battle begins

Dec 01, 2022 | 3:44 pm ET
By Sophie Nieto-Munoz
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N.J. bear hunt delayed as legal battle begins
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The bear hunt was set to begin just before sunrise on Dec. 5, but is now delayed after a judge issued an emergency stay blocking its start. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In a win for animal rights activists, a judge has issued an emergency stay that postpones the bear hunt that was scheduled to begin just before sunrise Monday. 

The Animal Protection League of New Jersey, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Friends of Animals had challenged the state’s authority to restart the hunt, a decision made by the New Jersey Fish and Game Council two weeks ago.

In a statement, Kate Hendrix, staff attorney for the Humane Society of the United States, called the hunt “unpopular and unnecessary.”

“The public is not facing any ‘imminent peril’ from New Jersey’s bruins, and the numbers that the agency cites to claim otherwise are misleading and taken out of context. The real emergency is the threat hundreds of New Jersey’s bears will face if this horrific, unscientific hunt is not stopped,” she said.

Restarting the bear hunt has won the approval of Gov. Phil Murphy, a second-term Democrat who had promised to end the practice during his first campaign in 2017. While he initially tightened hunting rules on state property, the hunt didn’t fully end until 2020, when he announced it would be the last under his administration. 

In November, Murphy announced his about-face after reporting an increase in human-bear interactions across the state and concerns about overpopulation. He said he’d bring back the five-day bear hunt, with the possibility of extending it if the harvest rate did not reach 20%. 

Days later, at the Fish and Game Council’s Nov. 15 emergency meeting, the body adopted an emergency rule, which eliminates the normally necessary 60-day public comment period. Animal rights groups who came out in opposition quickly filed a brief to halt the hunt, alleging the council misapplied its ability to make emergency rules.

State appellate court Judge Lisa Rose issued the halt to the hunt on Wednesday. The coalition of animal rights organizations has until 4 p.m. Friday to submit a legal brief, and the Division of Fish and Wildlife has until 4 p.m. Monday to respond.

The animal rights groups’ legal filing argues the state does not have an accurate estimate of the bear population. Without a precise count, the hunt could lead to “irreparable harm” to the species, the groups argue.

“The emergency rule is based on an assumption that the bear population is approximately 3,000 and will rise to approximately 4,000 in two years, allegedly necessitating an emergency. However, the current bear population has not been scientifically determined. The state has not counted the bears nor conducted a statistically significant valid estimate of the current population,” Dante DiPirro, attorney for the coalition of animal groups, said in the filing. 

New Jersey’s black bear population is largely concentrated in Sussex, Morris, Warren, and Passaic counties. State data shows 1,971 bear incidents have been reported in 2022 as of mid-October. In the same time period in 2021, 647 of those incidents were reported — an increase of 237%. 

Sen. Steve Oroho and Assemblymen Parker Space and Hal Wirths, Republicans from Sussex County, all commended the governor for his “willingness to follow the wildlife experts” in a joint statement after he said the hunt would return.

“This is something we have been calling on the governor to do since he signed that executive order in 2018 banning the bear hunt on state property,” Space said. “Bears have no natural predators, and without hunting, the number of bears could continue to multiply unchecked. This was the right call by the administration — they looked at the data and common sense prevailed.”

A spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection did not comment on when the bear hunt would begin if the animal rights groups ultimately fail to stop it altogether.

Bears begin their hibernation period in late December and reemerge in March or April.