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N.J. bear hunt delayed as legal battle begins

In a victory for animal rights activists, a judge ruled a emergency accommodation delaying 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 challenged the state’s authority to restart the hunta decision made two weeks ago by the New Jersey Fish and Game Council.

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

“The public faces no ‘imminent danger’ from New Jersey’s bruisers, and the numbers the agency cites to claim otherwise are misleading and out of context. The real emergency is the threat hundreds of New Jersey’s bears face if this horrific, unscientific hunt is not stopped,” she said.

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

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

Days later, at the Fish and Game Board’s Nov. 15 emergency meeting, the body adopted an emergency rule eliminating the normally required 60-day public comment period. Animal rights groups who came out in opposition quickly filed an injunction to stop the hunt, claiming the council had misapplied its power to make emergency rules.

State Court of Appeals Judge Lisa Rose halted the hunt Wednesday. The coalition of animal rights organizations has until 4:00 p.m. Friday to file a legal brief, and the Division of Fish and Wildlife has until 4:00 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 an accurate count, the hunt could lead to “irreparable damage” to the species, the groups argue.

“The emergency rule is based on an assumption that the bear population is about 3,000 and will rise to about 4,000 in two years, which is said to necessitate an emergency. However, the current bear population has not been scientifically determined. The state has not counted the bears nor made 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 that 1,971 bear incidents were reported by mid-October in 2022. In the same period in 2021, 647 of those incidents were reported – an increase of 237%.

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

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

A spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection would 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 at the end of December and reappear in March or April.

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