Black bear hunting is one of the most overly politicized issues in the state of New Jersey and it has been for decades.
The state is home to both a passionately outspoken populous of bear hunters and a borderline rabid contingent of anti-hunting activists who have gone so far as to make death threats to bear hunters.
But there will be no black bear hunting season in New Jersey this year though, despite the fact that it’s one of the most densely-populated bear states in the entire country.
The story is a case study in what happens when science and data get thrown out the window in favor of emotional whims and exaggerated political rhetoric.
As of June 21, 2021 the state of New Jersey’s Comprehensive Black Bear Management Plan expired. A new plan has yet to be signed by the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), so unless something changes there will be no bear hunting in the Garden State this year.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy seems to be the one to blame for such an egregious example of politics superseding science.
The issue has caused such a stir, that even Sports Illustrated published a hunting article earlier this year. Hunting is a topic the publication typically fails to give much attention too, good or bad.
Rough estimates indicate that there are at least 2,500 black bears roaming New Jersey. Such high bear densities in such a populated state means that the bears frequently come in contact with humans.
While the presence of bears in places like the Rocky and Smoky Mountains is well known, people are often surprised to hear how many bears live in New Jersey. Even more surprising to many is that, up until now, bear hunting has been popular just an hour west of the New York City skyscrapers.
In the last decade alone, bear hunters in New Jersey have tagged out on more than 4,000 bears. Supporters of the hunt rightfully contend that it’s a critical management tool for keeping the bear populations at ecologically and socially balanced levels.
Conflicts with bears are common in the state, and the number of incidents increased following Governor Murphy’s ban on bear hunting on state owned public land. Further eliminating bear hunting on private land will likely drive those numbers up even higher.
Back in 2014, one of those encounters with a bear turned fatal for a hiker. It was New Jersey’s first death by bear attack since 1787 when it officially became a state.
There were only about 100 black bears in the state during the 1970s, but by the year 2000 the state was home to more than 3,000 bears.
By 2010, bear hunting was back in full swing in the state. With hunters removing roughly 400 bears a year from the landscape, the number of reported bear conflicts dropped by half thanks to the implementation of hunting as a management tool.
Of the 41 states with black bear populations, hunting is legal in 32 of them. The states that don’t have bear hunting seasons don’t have them because their bear populations aren’t big enough to sustainably support a hunting season.
That is not the case in New Jersey though. In this instance, politics are to blame, not the bear population.
Now the future of bear management in New Jersey has never been more unclear. Governor Murphy has found a way to make good on his promise that 2020 would be the last bear hunting season in his state. The hunting community doesn’t give up easy though, and efforts are assuredly underway to figure out how to restore the hunting season in coming years.
The politicization of wildlife management issues sets a dangerous precedent, and it’s counterintuitive to the very foundation of the North American model of wildlife conservation which decrees that the best available science should drive management decisions, not politicians pandering to animal rights activists.
At the beginning of 2021, there was also an attempt to legislatively ban bear hunting in California. The buzz about the issue spread like a digital wildfire throughout the hunting community. The ensuing days saw a wave of scientific and fact-based advocacy roll through the state, eventually washing away the legislative mud and the bill was withdrawn from consideration after just a week.
Major outdoor media outlets like Outdoor Life and The Meateater ran feature-length articles raising the alarm about the bigger implications such a ban would have on the future of hunting at large.
In the wake of the attempted ban, Bear Hunting Magazine also launched a collaborative movement emphasizing the importance of bear hunters “guarding the gate” to prevent well-funded and strategic anti-hunting efforts like this from morphing beyond just bears and coming for the rest of the hunting world.
Luckily there are several conservation and hunting organizations fighting back against absurd attempts to ban those traditions and to defend the science-based management of wildlife.
According to Safari Club International (SCI), the science on New Jersey’s black bears is clear—the bear population is capable of rapid reproduction, which in turn strongly correlates to an increase in tense incidents between bears and humans.
Bears have a tough time staying out of trouble with livestock and trashcans. They also have a hard time staying out of courtrooms. SCI has a team of attorneys dedicated to defending the right to hunt and protecting science-based, sustainable-use conservation in courts throughout the country.
SCI has been involved in lawsuits related to bear hunting in New Jersey for over 15 years, most recently fighting to reopen state lands to bear hunting after the 2018 decision by Governor Murphy to ban bear hunting on more than 700,000 acres of previously accessibly public hunting land.
Since that decision, bear harvests have declined and bear conflicts have increased.
Damage and nuisance incidents attributed to black bears increased by more than 61% during the same time period—increasing from 503 to 811 incidents! Last August, a black bear had to be euthanized by state officials after the bear entered a garage and attacked an 82-year man who stumbled upon the animal raiding his refrigerator.
Last September, SCI made the case in court that the state land closure undermines New Jersey’s current bear management policy and puts New Jersey citizens at increased risk of bear encounters. SCI’s legal team alongside the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance and Sportsmen’s Alliance presented ample evidence that hunting is a necessary management tool to control New Jersey’s bear population.
However, Governor Murphy has decided he knows better than trained and certified bear biologists. The Governor claims claims that the new bear policy will focus on “non-lethal management techniques.” Techniques that have already proven to be ecologically and economically ineffective.
Both groups were understandably upset by the decision, something expressed by Sportsmen’s Alliance CEO Evan Heusinkveld:
“The Sportsmen’s Alliance is disappointed to see this judgement against science-based wildlife management.
We expect governors and fish and game commissioners to stand by the tenants of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation by protecting science-based management decisions as opposed to following through on campaign promises that have no scientific backing and threaten the safety and well-being of every citizen in New Jersey.
When a governor acts to fulfill a campaign promise as he did here, judicial appointments need to step in and correct the matter.”
New Jersey is home to the densest human population, and the second densest bear populations in the U.S.
The state also boasts the second-highest number of human-bear conflicts. Data and evidence have proven that hunting is the only way to keep the bear population in check at a level that keeps the human population safe. But by pandering to animal rights activists to get votes, the Governor has chosen politics over public safety.
The best way to ensure that the politicization of wildlife management doesn’t begin to erode more hunting opportunities moving forward is to support SCI or the Sportsmen’s Alliance by signing up for a membership today.
Safari Club International welcomes new members to help in the fight to protect hunting and to conserve wildlife around the world. By joining SCI, you support both hunting and conservation. As a member, you’re brought together with other like-minded hunters and you receive an exclusive array of benefits. These benefits include discounts on products and services, as well as insider news and other information that is not available anywhere else.
By becoming a member of the Sportsmen’s Alliance you’re taking an important step to help protect and promote our outdoor heritage. A Sportsmen’s Alliance membership creates a powerful and unified voice for sportsmen fighting against the anti-hunting and animal rights movement.
And for those of you that aren’t aware, most bear hunters do eat what they shoot. Black bear is one of the most versatile and delicious wild game species in the world.
Beyond just the wide variety of meals you can make from bear meat, there are several other ways to make the most of your bear harvest, including cooking oil, soaps, jewelry, candles and more.