As NJ bear population grows, hunting territory creeps south

 Hunters weigh their kills at a check-in station  kicking off New Jersey's 2013 hunt. This bear weighs in at 240.5 pounds. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Hunters weigh their kills at a check-in station kicking off New Jersey's 2013 hunt. This bear weighs in at 240.5 pounds. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It’s been years since black bears have been found in all 21 New Jersey counties, but now the territory for the annual bear hunt is spreading south.

The northwest part of the state has one of the densest black bear populations in the nation — close to three per square mile — and has been relatively stable in recent years partially thanks to an annual December hunt.

But officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection say new signs are emerging that bear reproduction is outpacing how many die or are killed by hunters. As bears seek out new territory, there is growing concern of increase in incidents with people.

Bear encounters increased by roughly 60 percent over the past year in the northwest part of the state, according to officials.

That’s why the New Jersey Fish and Game Council recently approved a proposed new bear management plan that would add a second week of hunting in October, as well as expand the current hunting zone into a few central Jersey counties where bears are often showing up now.

“It takes a number of strategies, it’s not just the hunt, it’s education and making sure people do the right things to minimize contact and don’t feed bears,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna.

“The bottom line though is careful management involves a hunting season, and we’ve determined that what we really need is an expanded season to manage the bear population for its own sustainability as well as reducing conflicts with people,” he said.

In Hunterdon County, nine townships previously fell in the regulated bear-hunting zone. Hajna said those areas logged over 600 bear incidents over the past four years. The proposal would expand the hunting area into the rest of the county.  Areas that will now be part of the hunt combined for another 300 incidents over that same time.

Hopewell Township and Hopewell Borough in Mercer County also will be included in the new hunting zone.

Paul Pogorzelski, City Administrator in Hopewell Township, said he just received word of the expansion Tuesday – and didn’t yet have much of an opinion.

“When you have a bear sighting, everybody gets excited and people call our dispatchers, so we’re aware of it, but it’s nature so we handle it accordingly and try and help them find their path back,” said Pogerzelski. “We try and keep a monitor approach and worry less about the management of it.”

Between 2003 and 2010, there were just two bear hunts that took place in New Jersey, according to officials. Since 2010, there has been one a year in December. An additional six-day hunt week in October stipulates the use of a bow-and-arrow only for three days.  That would allow hunters to take animals in closer proximity to areas where there are encounters with people.

“When we launched the hunt we were conservative, holding it in December when bears are denning down and the weather isn’t pleasant,” said Hajna. “By opening it up in October we will be able to more carefully control bears that are causing these incident complaints we’ve seen on the rise.”  After the bear was hunted to near extinction, New Jersey did not allow hunts for three decades.  Then in 2003 they began hunts again, but they were not held every year.

Hajna was quick to stress the importance of education as well, like cleaning up food, closing trashcans, and certainly not feeding bears, which can habituate them to come close to people.

As for what new hunting laws could mean for residents of the expanded zones, Hajna said there was little danger involved with regards to the hunts.

“It’s actually a very safe pursuit, because hunters are very serious about their sport and safety,” said Hajna. “Also, hunts take place on regulated lands. They’re not just going to walk onto your property and start shooting bears.”

The New Jersey DEP Commissioner must approve the policy before it can take affect, and will also be open for a 60-day public comment period and public hearing.

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