NEWS: New Jersey: The Un-Bearable Hype of the Hunt
by Catherine Burt | Spring 2011
Several U.S. states have rolled out bear hunts after formerly prohibiting the killing of bears. Why? Catherine Burt describes the high-profile case of killing bears in New Jersey.
“There are too many of them!”
New Jersey bears had been going about their business, experiencing a healthy rebound from three-digit populations of the past. But some people weren’t happy for them. Some evidently think seeing any bears at all means there are too many. Officials tallied up their complaints, and in the summer of 2010 a hunt was rolled out, slated to begin on Dec. 6 th. Th e Division of Fish and Wildlife decided to issue 6,680 permits to shoot a northern portion of an estimated state bear population of just 3,400 bears.
When the hunt was proposed, state-employed biologists estimated that 300 to 700 or more bears would be killed. But by the middle of the week of killing, biologists reported having issued 7,800 permits, and were talking about a possible thousand dead bears.
In winter, New Jersey’s black bears enter their dens in a depressed bodily state, or torpor, that enables them to live off their fat stores. They can be roused if disturbed or enticed by the smell of food. The baiting of resting bears with grease, chocolate, and other food was legal during the December killing spree.
There were no restrictions on killing mothers with cubs. Hunters were urged to kill any bear they could get with a clear shot. People could kill bears of any size, including very young ones – and they did. One hunter killed a bear so small that when we heard a rug would be made, we wondered if it would be a bath mat.
At the end of the six-day massacre, 591 bears were dead.
“Too many” is a lucrative concept for the state agencies that profit from the stalking and killing of animals. These agencies decide on a desired number of animals for a given area, to accommodate the hunting economy, the urge to develop land, and the convenience of animal agribusiness, as well as public anxiety -- everything but the best interests of the animals themselves. Managing the bears involves flirtation with the line between existence and extinction, always seeking to limit a population to some artificial quota that nature could better determine for itself.
In December 2010, the National Rifle Association issued a press release titled “Bear Hunt Helped Balance Population, Available Habitat.” There is no reason to accept this attempt by the NRA to credit its proponents for what nature already has well in hand. For in fact, bear populations regulate themselves. If not fed by humans, bears reach a balance with natural habitat and available forage. Bears who don't carry enough body fat to nourish them through the winter are unable to have viable cubs.
Close Encounters of the Ursine Kind
Wildlife rehabilitator Ann Bryant is the executive director of the Bear League (www.SaveBears.org), a non-profit group focused on preserving habitat and working with agencies to resolve anxiety about bears. Bryant points out that bear population statistics are not as easy to compute as state statistics might imply. After a kill, wilderness area becomes available to bears from nearby regions; new bears will move in, some crossing state lines.
Other trickystatistics involve nuisance complaints. A nuisance is in the eye of the beholder, even if we assume that no duplicate complaints or other errors have been made.
A wildlife officer responding to a call about a bear, Bryant explains, must determine on the spot whether the bear is likely to come into conflict with people. Although a bear in a suburban backyard or tree is not generally considered a nuisance, an officer must make a judgment call, particularly if the bear is lingering or apparently seeking food. Unless a bear has previously been tagged, it may be hard to determine if, as a repeat visitor to dumpsters or bird feeders, he is actually a nuisance.
Close encounters with black bears might be reported as near-attacks. Feeding a bear incurs a large fine in New Jersey, so any information about a bear being fed could, for that reason, be omitted from an incident report about a bear who frequents a patio in search of food.
Bears must store enough fat to carry them through the winter, so their sense of smell is keen. Once they sniff out a food source in housing developments, they will come back for any meals left out in convenient, easy-to-open containers. In short, they become habituated to life around humans – and that’s harder to avoid as our encroachment into their space continues.
“The most common bear problem New Jersey's residents experience is black bears getting into their garbage,” says New Jersey ’s Fish and Wildlife Division website. Thus, “properly securing your garbage is one of the best ways to prevent bears from becoming a nuisance in your community.”
Yet there is no enforcement of any strict ordinance for securing refuse bins in New Jersey. This is why many advocates believe “ nuisances” are generated with full knowledge of the state, in order to create a hunting solution. When the killing is authorized, it will go on outside residential areas – targeting different bears.
Authorities apprehend bears they deem nuisances. The bears are tagged on each ear, and each bear is tattooed on the lips in case the tags come off. In 2010, 299 bears were reportedly tagged in New Jersey as nuisances. Only 23 tagged bears turned up amongst the victims of the six-day kill. What is this kill really solving?
And the more one reads about the intrusive tagging process, the more one wonders if the agents who appoint themselves managers of bears aren’t themselves factors in the habituation problem.
It’s vital to note that black bears have been endangered species in New Jersey. It’s not a problem, but a triumph, that twice as many bears grace the state now than a decade or so ago.
And as their numbers have grown to a healthier level, we read about only one true attack on a human. As reported by the Star-Ledger editorial board in March 2010, Henry Rouwendal was loading his tools into his SUV one day in 2009; also in the vehicle was an Italian hoagie. Rouwendal sustained a black eye and a shoulder injury when knocked face-down down by an adult black bear who grabbed the sandwich. The editorial concluded: “ The state needs a bear hunt.”
Bears are risky animals when habituated and hungry. (Or, in the less scientific words of the Star-Ledger editorial, they are “freeloaders” when opportunities arise.) But does this justify the killing of bears in the hundreds?
Given the rise in the human population of New Jersey by some 300,000 over the past decade, the course of co-existence between bears and humans has been remarkably smooth. Even during that week in December when hunters infiltrated their bear habitat, setting up hunting blinds and setting out food as bait, no one was attacked by a bear.
Humans, not bears, have acted out deliberate aggression and violence as our populations have grown. And yet, in a telephone interview in January 2011, Ann Bryant told me only about one in a thousand people are willing to kill a bear. Bryant believes that antiquated thinking within wildlife agencies, rather than public opinion, drives the killing plans.
“Attitudes about hunting have changed a lot in the last hundred years, but wildlife agencies haven't,” Bryant says.
“They want to continue the licensing to generate income, because that's how it's always been done. This thinking must be overcome in favor of sustainable ways to fund these agencies. Once you kill a bear, that bear is gone forever.”
“You've got to remember that when hunting is supporting an agency, that agency will promote fear, and pander to those who fear animals and want to kill them,” Bryant continued. “Agencies should be working for the entire public, not catering to a small percentage of the public. Non-hunters are the majority now.”
Working against the passage of a similar hunt in Lake Tahoe, Bryant encountered a high level of bias in the decision process.
“The hunt was decided unanimously by a panel of hunters, despite opposition. We attended the public meetings; we outnumbered those in favor of the hunt by five to one. If you consider the phone calls, letters, and e-mails sent by community members who opposed the hunt, it was more like 1,000 to one. The agency's panel completely ignored the public. The wolves are running the hen house.”
New Jersey rolled out its week of killing despite strong and well-expressed opposition (which included a rally at the New Jersey State House in Trenton, organized by Friends of Animals). But it wasn’t just the Star-Ledger giving Governor Christie a green light. The governor’s election had been vigorously endorsed by hunting groups.
What Can We Do?
We owe it to bears to stop giving them easy food, and to instead encourage them to stay in their natural habitat. Most of all, we owe them wild places, where they are free to forage for these foods, interact naturally within their ecosystem, and to live as nature intended, without our management, control, or interference.
The people must lead, by resolutions against the killing, township by township. It is important that those opposed to killing bears make their voices heard to local and state governments. This promising trend has already begun.
Meanwhile, legal work is needed to stop the kill -- with arguments made on the federal as well as regional level, and with sound environmental arguments and not just quibbling over how many nuisance reports are counted annually. It is high time for a well-funded, pro bono legal team, perhaps an alliance between the law schools of Rutgers and Seton Hall, to move to the forefront of bear protection; we encourage Friends of Animals members to contact their deans and encourage this, so that bears are not yet again targeted.
John J. Farmer, Jr., Dean
Rutgers School of Law – Newark
123 Washington Street
Newark , NJ 07102
Patrick E. Hobbs, Dean
Seton Hall University School of Law
One Newark Center
Newark , NJ 07102
- State of New Jersey 214 th Legislature, Bear Hunt Authorization: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2010/Bills/A0500/181_I1.PDF
- The last bear kill in the state had been in 2005, with approximately 4,200 permits issued and 298 bears tallied up as dead.
- See Brian T. Murray, “Black Bear Hunt Gets Final Approval From Department of Environmental Protection Head”- The Star-Ledger(21 Jul. 2010), stating: “As Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin signed off on hunt, state biologists predicted hunters will take about the same number of bears that were killed in the state’s last two hunts — 328 in 2003 and 298 in 2005.”
- Midway through the killing, Patrick Carr, supervising wildlife biologist for the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, told the press that the original target range was 500 to 700, and said the number could go as high as 1,000. See Seth Augenstein, “Record Number Killed During First Three Days of N.J. Bear Hunt” - The Star-Ledger (8 Dec. 2010; electronic version updated 2 Jan. 2011), reporting: “A t least 426 bears were killed as of 5 p.m. today and the Department of Environmental Protection is expecting the number to climb — possibly to as high as 700, or even 1,000 — from the 7,800 permits issued for the first bear hunt since 2005.”
- The New Jersey Herald reported a final number as 23 nuisance bears killed. See Bruce A. Scruton, “ Bear Hunt Took 23 Nuisance Bears” (15 Dec. 2010). In a telephonic interview with Dustin Garrett Rhodes, Friends of Animals Capital Correspondent, Larry Ragonese, press director at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, reported that 299 bears were tagged in 2010.