NJ bear hunt off for 2021, Division of Fish and Game says

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There will be no bear hunt in New Jersey in 2021.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette has not signed off on the updated Comprehensive Black Bear Management Plan and without such a plan, the Fish and Game Council cannot set a hunting season.

In mid-afternoon Wednesday, the Division of Fish and Game, part of DEP, posted on its website that on June 21, 2021, New Jersey’s Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy (CBBMP) expired, “and as such, there is no black bear hunt in 2021.”

The message read that in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling on Sept. 27, 2007, no black bear hunt may occur without a “properly-promulgated CBBMP proposed by the New Jersey Fish and Game Council and approved by the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.”

Not only has he not signed off on the updated plan, but Fish and Game Council member Phil Brodhecker of Hampton said he has been told LaTourette “hasn’t even read it. This is all politics.”

This is an election year and incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy has made political headlines and points with segments of the voting public by opposing any bear hunt in the state. While courts said he could not usurp the Fish and Game Council’s mandate to set hunting seasons based on management plans, he did close all state-owned lands to black bear hunting last year. 

And, since the DEP commissioner is a governor appointment, the fact LaTourette has not signed off on the updated plan was expected, Brodhecker said.

Brodhecker is a farmer representative to the Council and has been on the board for more than a decade. He said not adopting a management plan “is a horrible shame because without it, the division has no authority to manage” the bear species. 

The first black bear policy was adopted by the Council and approved by then-commissioner Bradley Campbell on Nov. 14, 2005. The policy followed a 2004 state Supreme Court ruling that a black bear hunt could not take place until such a policy was adopted by the Fish and Game Council and approved by the commissioner. 

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The policy covers most aspects of human interaction with black bears from studies of the animals, to methods of monitoring the health and welfare of the state’s population of bruins to ways to control the bear population.

Hunting, according to the policy, is an integral part of population control. New Jersey’s black bear population is the most dense of any in the bears range with sows average of one to two cubs more per bi-annual litter than in other bear populations. Normally, there are one to two bears for every 2 to 3 square miles. In New Jersey, the estimates for the northwestern part of the state are two to three bears for every square mile.

Each iteration of the black bear policy has been for five years with succeeding commissioners signing off on the updated policy.

Brodhecker said this new policy was revamped by the Council. The updated policy was approved and forwarded to the commissioner in March.

It is not immediately known what effect, other than no hunting season, the lack of an in-effect policy will have on other aspects of black bear controls and studies, the councilman said.

The DEP did not immediately respond to requests for information, such as if the former policy is continued, reasons for not signing the updated document and what the next steps might be.

Senator Steve Oroho and Assemblymen Parker Space and Hal Wirths, Republicans whose district is within the bear hunt zones, called Murphy’s action “a divisive political play” that increases the likelihood of hazardous human encounters with the animals. 

“Throughout this pandemic, Governor Murphy has preached about following the science, yet in this instance, he is blindly obeying his version of political science while potentially jeopardizing the public safety of New Jerseyans,” said Oroho. “We don’t want to go back to not managing the bear population properly,” 

“This is a self-serving attempt to placate extremists in an election year while increasing the likelihood of a dangerous encounter with a bear,” said Space, a member of the Assembly Agriculture Committee and a co-chairman of the NJ Angling, Hunting and Conservation Caucus and whose family owns farms acreage in Wantage.

“Once again, Murphy is more concerned about politics. Hunts effectively controlled the bear population since 2010, and reports of nuisance and damage were cut in half during that time,” he added. 

The policy covered issues such as the division’s authority to handle black bear complaints. And, since many complaints are now handled by local police trained in black bear controls, what effect no policy would have is not immediately known.

If someone’s life or livestock are in danger, the bear may be killed under other laws and guidelines, Brodhecker noted. 

“There are too many bears for the environment to support, so they wander out of the woods and into neighborhoods in search of food and shelter,” said Wirths. “There is nothing humane about bears starving in the wild. It is a recipe for disaster that can be mitigated with responsible hunting controls.”

Last year, Murphy closed state lands to hunting and said at the time that 2020 would be the last black bear hunt in New Jersey.  

Public lands account for 12% of the acreage in the state’s five Black Bear Management zones where hunting is allowed. But in the three years leading up to that ban, the state lands accounted for more than 40% of the black bear harvest. 

In that case, brought by the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance and other hunting and sports groups, the governor argued “there will be plenty of hunting opportunities even if we close state lands,” said Cody McLaughlin, spokesman for the NJOA.

He said the lack of a signature on the new plan is “preposterous” and that not having a hunt, a prime method of controlling most wildlife populations “increases negative interactions with bears and is endangering the public safety.”

He said the black bear population is continuing to expand across the state and farmers in south Jersey “are seeing more (bears) than ever seen before.”

McLaughlin said the bear hunt issue likely will become a hot-button issue in this year’s governor’s race and said, “This is a wake-up call for people to get out there and vote. It will be a huge issue given the obvious result of no hunt.”

Wirths, who also serves as the Assembly Republican budget officer, questioned DEP commissioner LaTourette during budget hearings in April on increased bear activity.

“He had no answers to my questions,” said Wirths. “His action, by not approving the updated bear management policy, shows the Murphy administration continually does not give a damn about people living in the northwestern part of New Jersey.”