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New Jersey’s bear hunt a source of contention

(MCT) — Black-bear hunting season started a half hour before the crack of dawn on Monday, and on the surface, the decade-long battles involving state wildlife staff, animal-rights activists, hunter groups and the state’s courts are over.

The state notes it has a scientifically based bear management plan as mandated by the courts, that plan includes hunting, and that’s that.

But animal rights advocates, now relegated to the fringes of the hunt, still are mounting challenges: This year, they’re lobbying for support of a state bill, proposed Thursday, that would ban hunters from “baiting” bears with food, and also require residents of “Bear Country” communities — core bear habitat in North Jersey’s Highlands — to use bear-resistant trash containers. Such measures would make it harder to kill a bear, and cut down on the kind of nuisance incidents used to justify the hunt.

Two leading advocacy groups, The Bear Education and Resource Group and Animal Protection League of New Jersey, say they will not bring a legal challenge to this year’s hunt. A state appeals court last year upheld the state Department of Environmental Protection’s bear management policy. DEP staffers say the plan, which includes an annual hunt, is working, proven by reductions in the bear population and bear-human encounters.

They estimate there are 2,800 to 3,000 black bears living in North Jersey, down from 3,400 two years ago. Bear sightings have dropped 34 percent, damage and nuisance complaints decreased 26 percent and dangerous incidents declined 43 percent through the end of October, compared with the same time last year.

Susan E. Russell of the Animal Protection League said protests at key hunting areas have again been scheduled, but she acknowledged the hunt was here to stay — so long, she argued, as Governor Chris Christie is in office.

“Governor Christie promised this hunting group a bear hunt if he were elected governor, and they worked for his election, and he’s not going to renege,” she said.

The big issue for activists this year is baiting. New Jersey lets hunters lay down bait for deer and bears, although baiting is banned on federal parklands in the state. It’s a practice that is controversial because it is seen as an unsportsmanlike way to kill an animal. Opponents say it also can have the undesired effects of conditioning bears to associate food with people. Of the 28 states that allow bear hunting, 18 do not allow baiting for bear. They include New York and Pennsylvania.

“This is not a hunt. It’s an assassination,” Russell said. “It’s a bait and shoot.”

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, N.J., is sponsoring a bill that would ban baiting and require stricter trash management. He expected support in the Legislature for what he called “common sense” practices that would lessen and eventually eliminate the need for future hunts.

“If this legislation was implemented, we wouldn’t need bear hunts because there wouldn’t be any danger of these wondrous animals coming into municipalities and endangering anyone,” Lesniak said.

DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said he had not seen the bill and his agency would review it. But he said baiting was less of a problem than animal rights activists who have been feeding bears outside their homes with the “misguided notion that they’re babies, they’re pets.”

Ragonese added that concerns about trash management were “overblown” as most people living in “Bear Country,” the northwestern part of the state, already followed best practices.

An Animal Protection League review of studies about baiting, written by Penn State University professor Thomas Eveland, suggests that the practice actually allows deer and bear populations to increase. Many hunters use a mix of foods that have a high concentration of fats and carbohydrates — such as doughnuts, molasses and animal carcasses — which lead to significantly higher reproductive and survivability rates, he wrote.

The research also shows that baiting leads bears to associate people with food and can cause future conflicts. The connection, Eveland wrote, is made by lingering scents of humans by the baiting sites.

Another argument centers around fairness. Lesniak, the state senator, likened baiting to “shooting a fish in a barrel.”

“That’s a not a sport,” he said. “I understand that enjoyment of that, but the sport has to be a fair game.”

Many hunters, who must use shotguns or muzzleloader rifles in New Jersey, see baiting as a quicker, more efficient way to take a deer or a bear. Rather than see baiting as unsportsmanlike, they consider it more humane: Baiting draws the animal nearer, and makes it easier to take it with one shot.

“Baiting actually helps you get a better shot,” said Tony Cinque, a hunter from Newark who was shopping for gear at Ramsey Outdoor in Paramus. “Anytime you’re able to have a good, clean kill and not have the animal suffer, then it’s more humane.”

Another hunter, John Gomez, 61, of New Milford, was working behind the counter at Ramsey Outdoor. Gomez shot a bear during New Jersey’s first hunt in 2003, and remembers the tasty sausages that he cooked afterward. He said baiting isn’t inhumane because the animal has advantages over the hunter.

“It’s not easy to hunt a bear,” Gomez said. “The bear has a superior sense of smell and hearing. You’re hunting for something that knows you’re there.”

In a statement, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said the statistics show that the state’s five-year comprehensive bear management plan “not only protects the public but also safeguards our black bear population.”

But activists and hunters alike questioned the agency’s numbers. Both Gomez and Cinque say it appears that the back-to-back bear hunts in 2010 and 2011 haven’t reduced the population.

“I hunt the same property outside of Newton (in Sussex County) and I’ve seen six bear there since bow season began on Sept. 8,” said Cinque.

This year’s bear hunt runs through Saturday, Dec. 8, coinciding with the state’s six-day firearm deer hunting season. The bear hunt is confined to four areas north of Route 78 and west of Route 287.

More than 6,700 bear hunting permits have been secured so far this year, compared with more about 9,200 in 2011. But the DEP expects a similar number of bears to be “harvested” as last year, when 469 bears were killed. The agency said 20 percent of those bears had caused property damage or were the subject of complaints.

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