62 bears killed on 1st day of N.J. bear hunt; opponents plan new lawsuit
New Jersey’s controversial bear hunt opened 30 minutes before sunrise on Monday, with hunters heading into the woods on a dreary October day as the remnants of Hurricane Delta drenched the Garden State.
Those hunters killed 62 black bears, down from the 108 bears were killed on the first day of bear season last year.
Sussex County saw the most bears bagged on Monday, with 29. Elsewhere, 17 bears were killed in Morris County, 11 bears in Warren County, three bears in Passaic County, and one bear each in Bergen and Hunterdon counties.
Hunters killed 315 black bears in the state during the entire 2019 season. New Jersey’s highest bear hunt totals were recorded in the 2016 season, when hunters killed 636 of the animals.
The bear hunt is open for bowhunting only through Wednesday. Muzzleloaders will also be allowed Thursday through Saturday. A second segment of bear season, for firearms only, will open Dec. 7.
Though black bears are found throughout the state, the hunt is restricted to Sussex, Warren, Passaic, Morris, Bergen, Hunterdon, Somerset and Mercer counties. Bear hunting is prohibited on state lands thanks to an executive order issued by Gov. Phil Murphy in 2018.
The coronavirus has had one major impact on this year’s bear hunt: In an effort to promote social distancing, the state’s traditional weigh stations are not being used. Instead, successful hunters must call and report their kills to the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. A state biologist will then contact the hunter to legally check the bear and collect biological data.
New Jersey’s bear hunt was restarted in 2003 and being dormant for decades, following a crash in bear numbers in the 1970s. Advocates for the hunt say it is the most effective method of controlling the bear population and preventing threats to human safety and property.
A 2018 report from state wildlife officials warned that ending the bear hunt could cause New Jersey’s bear population to double by 2022.
Murphy, who campaigned on a promise to close bear season, announced a plan last week to stop any future bear hunts under his watch. That plan calls for an amendment to the state’s game code that removes the current bear management policy from the regulations.
The New Jersey Fish and Game Council, which has the final say on the state’s game code and has been Murphy’s biggest obstacle in cancelling the bear hunt, is scheduled to meet telephonically on Tuesday morning. Murphy’s proposed changes are on the agenda.
Opponents pledge to sue
While hunters spent the day in forests and fields, animal rights activists went online to voice their displeasure.
Raymond Lesniak, the former Democratic state senator from Union County, used a Zoom press conference to announce that a coalition of animal rights activists plans to sue the state over the statutory makeup of the state fish and game council.
The council currently consists of 11 members: Six sportsmen, recommended by the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, three farmers recommended by the state agriculture convention, the chair of the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Advisory Committee and one person with expertise in land management and soil conservation.
Brian Hackett, the state director of the Humane Society of the United States’s New Jersey branch, argued its unfair that a council with such a make-up gets to decide how wildlife is managed in the Garden State.
“Nobody is allowed on this fish and game council except for pro-hunting hunters, and pro-hunting farmers and some mysterious person who needs to know about soil,” Hackett said.
Lesniak echoed that sentiment, and said the council should include scientists, hikers, bird watchers and other people who use New Jersey’s outdoors for activities beyond hunting. He also argued the state’s bear population belongs to all residents, and should be protected by the public trust doctrine in the same way that access to waterways and beaches is protected.
Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, supported those points.
“It really has to be a council that manages public lands for the public benefit,” Tittel said.
The planned lawsuit, Lesniak said, is similar to Humane Society of the U.S. v. N.J. State Fish and Game Council, a 1976 case in which the Humane Society claimed the structure of the state fish and game council was unconstitutional.
That effort failed, with the state Supreme Court issuing a 6-1 ruling in favor of the state.
“The governmental interest in establishing regulations to ensure a plentiful supply of game animals for consumption and sport is suitably furthered by placing a degree of regulatory control in the hands of a Fish and Game Council composed of sportsmen, farmers, and commercial fishermen,” Associate Justice Robert Clifford wrote in the majority opinion. “Opening the Council’s membership to persons with differing philosophies might reflect the art of public relations, but it is not a constitutional necessity.”
Clifford’s decision acknowledges the council’s make-up is may be “less than ideal” to the general public, but left it to state lawmakers to handle any changes to who sits on the council.
Associate Justice Morris Pashman was the one dissenter in the 1976 case. He argued there was no good reason why membership to the fish and game council should be tied to sportsmen’s clubs and the agriculture convention.
“I especially cannot sanction this practice where its practical effect will deprive an organization, whose interests are intimately affected by the decisions of the Fish and Game Council, of any chance to achieve the representation which it needs to protect those interests,” Pashman wrote in his dissent, referring to groups like the Humane Society and the Sierra Club.
Lesniak said the planned lawsuit will rely on Pashman’s dissent, and “additional evidence” that was not presented in 1976.
“It’s an old case,” Lesniak said. “A lot of things that need to be presented to the court were not presented at that time.”
Lesniak said he expects the lawsuit to be filed early next year. Until then, he said he and his fellow activists are working to persuade Murphy to halt the bear hunt that is currently underway.
“We don’t have many options,” Lesniak acknowledged. He said that bear hunt opponents had urged Murphy to cancel this year’s hunt out of COVID-19 concerns — he noted a concern about hunters traveling to New Jersey from hotspot states — but the governor declined to do so.
Lesniak also called on hunters to just go home, and not participate in the bear hunt.
“Be content that you have made a positive contribution to the moral fabric of our society by not contributing to the slaughter of our bear population,” Lesniak said.