The New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Council will vote Tuesday on a proposal to revive the state’s bear hunting season.
The bear hunting season could be returning to New Jersey after farmers and residents have complained about the surging black bear population and the Department of Environmental Protection reporting that encounters with bears have increased by 237% over 2021 numbers, according to reporting from News 12 New Jersey.
Those factors have prompted Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to reconsider his stance on the season, which he canceled in part starting in 2018 and entirely last year, following through on a promise he made to animal rights activists during his 2017 election campaign.
Murphy was narrowly re-elected to a second term in 2021.
“Since the outset of my administration, I have promised to ground every difficult decision on the latest science and evidence in order to protect our communities,” Murphy said in a statement last week while signaling support for reviving the hunt.
“From the data we have analyzed to the stories we have heard from families across the state, it is clear that New Jersey’s black bear population is growing significantly, and nonlethal bear management strategies alone are not enough to mitigate this trend.”
Murphy’s change of heart would be a welcome one for many state residents who have complained of increased encounters with bears that have terrified residents and damaged crops and livestock.
“They really knock a lot of corn down, eat a lot of corn and they’ll take anywhere from 5% to 25% of a field. We’ve seen some fields that have been 70% decimated this year,” Phillip Broadhecker, a farmer from Hampton Township, told News 12. “You can actually go on to Google maps and look at Earth views in the fall of fields and see circles and round spots in fields, and it’s astounding how bad it is.”
Broadhecker said the damage doesn’t stop at crops, noting that livestock and even people’s pets have been the targets of the growing population of bears.
“We’ve got a lot of livestock that have been killed or injured up here. Goats, chickens, pigs, small horses, even people’s dogs,” he said.
The result has been a loss of profits for farmers.
“You plant that field in the spring, and when you lose 70% of that crop, you’re not getting that money back to pay your bills. You have to pay your fertilizer, your seed guy, the fuel — there’s a lot of expense there,” Broadhecker explained.
New Jersey’s bear hunt has long been a controversial issue in the state and was once banned for 30 years before returning in 2003 under former Gov. Jim McGreevey. It was once again banned by former Gov. Jon Corzine, only to return again under former Gov. Chris Christie in 2010.
Murphy’s decision to once again ban the hunt has proved controversial. Critics say the move has led to a skyrocketing population that the state can no longer ignore. State officials estimate the population has now topped 3,000 but could surge to 4,000 in the next two years if left untouched.
Murphy heard those complaints, acknowledging he may have to reverse his earlier promise.
“Every New Jerseyan deserves to live in communities in which their children, families and property are protected from harm,” Murphy said last week. “And while I committed to ending the bear hunt, the data demands that we act now to prevent tragic bear-human interactions.
“We must responsibly adapt to the population with carefully regulated and strict bear population management strategies to ensure our communities and families are protected from the growing black bear population.”
But the move to revive the New Jersey bear hunt was not well received by animal rights activists, who claim the hunt does little to help the state’s surging bear population.
“The hunt does not reduce the black bear’s fertility rate, nor does it prevent incidents with bears,” Angi Metler of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey told News 12. “When bears don’t have access to unnatural food sources, they can actually start reproducing and having cubs up to the age of 11. In New Jersey, they start having cubs at age 2½.”
Nevertheless, the Fish and Game Council will move forward with a vote on the proposal, with the council’s Chair Frank Virgilio signaling support for reviving the hunt.
“As chairman of the Fish and Game Council, I share Gov. Murphy’s concerns for protecting public safety while supporting a healthy black bear population in New Jersey,” Virgilio said in a statement last week. “Additionally, we have an obligation to conduct bear hunting in New Jersey both ethically and responsibly. The council’s job is to consider credible black bear management as well as the non-hunting public and their acceptance of our regulations.”