New Jersey's 2015 bear hunt began Monday the same way as it did in 2014: The first bear hunter to deliver his kill to the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area in Sussex County was also the first to arrive with a dead bear last year.

Picture of black bear inside the Apshawa Preserve in West Milford taken by Darsh Patel before it fatally attacked him (West Milford Police)

Marc Beardslee told he didn't even get a chance to crack his Thermos before he shot a bear on private property in Sparta.

"I was lucky enough to get out into the tree stand early this morning, way before sunrise," Beardslee said. "The Lord blessed me with the opportunity right quick, right out of the gate."

Beardslee also was the first hunter in 2014 to bring a bear to the check station in Fredon. He used a shotgun to kill the bear in each instance.

Officials said 118 bears had been harvested by 5 p.m. Monday.

State wildlife officials believe the annual hunt is an important part of their bear management plan; they say it's needed to control the population and help protect the environment. But it continues to draw fire from animal activists and other critics who contend it's inhumane and unnecessary.

About two dozen hunt protesters gathered across the road from the check-in station. Among them was Jerome Mandel, who said he has protested the bear hunt during three different governors' terms.

"All this is is legalized murder," he said.

The state recently expanded the areas where hunting will be allowed during the six-day event. It will be permitted this year in all or portions of Hunterdon, Passaic, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, and Warren counties, and parts of Bergen and Mercer counties.

"Because we have such a dense population in the northwest part of the state, they are moving out from that and expanding their range," said Carole Stanko, acting chief of the DEP's Bureau of Wildlife Management. "We've had sightings in all counties in New Jersey."

Hunters harvested 272 bears during last year's hunt.

New Jersey resumed bear hunting in 2003 after more than 30 years.

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