TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey will hold its first bear hunt in five years this December to thin a growing black bear population that wildlife biologists say is increasingly coming into contact with suburban New Yorkers.
The head of the Environmental Protection Department on Wednesday approved the six-day hunt in northwestern New Jersey as part of a management policy that includes public education and habitat protection.
Bears have always had a plentiful food supply in the hilly wilds of northwestern New Jersey, but as civilization pushes ever westward from New York they are finding it easier to live off crops, garbage and other vestiges of humanity, experts say.
Wildlife officials will issue as many as 10,000 hunting permits, anticipating a kill of 500 to 750 black bears out of an estimated population of 3,400. A similar hunt in 2005 killed 297 black bears, down from 328 killed during a hunt in 2003.
"It is clear that a historical rise in public complaints regarding black bears is correlated with the growing bear population," said environmental Commissioner Bob Martin. "This public safety issue cannot be ignored."
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the hunt "recreational."
"Education, nonlethal bear management programs and methods for dealing with garbage do not exist in the plan because funding has been eliminated," Tittel said. "In addition, the state does not have enough conservation officers to manage black bears. This is only about eliminating black bears, not actually managing the population."
The number of bears in New Jersey has swelled from an estimated 500 in 1992. While the population remains concentrated in the rural northwestern part of the state, bear sightings have been reported in all 21 counties and are becoming more frequent.
"Now we have bears in places we haven't had bears in 100 years," said Patrick Carr, supervising wildlife biologist with the state's Fish and Wildlife Division.
Carr, who oversees a project that has been studying New Jersey's bear population since the late 1970s, said the vast majority of bears steer clear of humans. However, because they are opportunistic feeders, black bears sometimes break into houses and cars, rummage through garbage cans, knock down bird feeders, wreck crops and kill livestock. Attacks on humans are rare.
"People see them up here so often they don't bother to call anymore," said Sen. Steve Oroho, who lives in Franklin Borough in Sussex County.
Sightings have become so common, Oroho said, that he sometimes spots one or more black bears a few times a week. While working at a golf course a few summers ago, his son, Sean, inadvertently got between a female and her cubs and barely got back to his disabled golf cart before the female growled and charged. Luckily, she soon lost interest and went back to her cubs.
Wednesday's approval followed a unanimous recommendation by the state's Fish and Game Council. The council's review cited an increasing number of home entries and attempted entries by black bears and the threat to property and public safety as key reasons for the vote.
Wildlife officials reported 76 aggressive-bear incidents in the first six months of the year and 13 aggressive black bears euthanized during the same period. They instances of bears threatening people or property increased 96 percent from 2006 through 2009.
Oroho said his constituents are split between those who support the hunt and those who oppose it. The Fish and Game Council received more than 9,000 comments before making its recommendation.
In 2006, then-Gov. Jon Corzine and his environmental commissioner, Lisa Jackson, blocked a hunt over questions about its effectiveness.