Days after the conclusion of a hunt in which a near-record number of bears were killed —  including, locals say, one who’d been become a Morris County-area celebrity — a Senate committee voted to prohibit hunts for five years in favor of nonlethal methods of dealing with black bears.

Studies show hunts may increase interactions between bears and people, rather than the other way around, said Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, the bill’s sponsor.

“Reducing the bear population through hunting methods has absolutely no impact on any confrontations between bears and human beings. None. Zero,” Lesniak said. “And indeed, the hunting process itself increases that likelihood because the hunters are allowed to bait the bears before they do the hunting. And they bait them with human food.”

The bill, S2702, would ban hunters from using bait to lure a deer in black-bear habitat areas.

“Real hunters don’t need bait to hunt,” Lesniak said. “That’s not hunting. That’s not a sport. That’s just shooting fish in a barrel.”

In addition to a bear-hunt moratorium, the bill requires the state to implement a program seeking to control the bear population through nonlethal methods; allow people to be fined $1,000 for intentional feeding of bears for a first offense, eliminating the currently required written warning; and require all garbage cans and dumpsters in black-bear areas to be bear-resistant.

“If there were any correlation between hunting bears and the safety of the public, I wouldn’t object to it,” Lesniak said. “But there’s no correlation, and there are better ways to do it.”

The discussion of the bill included frequent references to last week’s 6-day bear hunt, in which 562 bears were reported to the Department of Environmental Protection as having been killed.

Among them, apparently, was a bear nicknamed Pedals who had been seen frequently in neighborhoods in the area of Roxbury Township. Due to either injuries or a birth defect, the bear walked upright on two legs because of limitations on his front paws. The state Department of Environmental Protection released photos of the bear and said the injuries "appear to be consistent" with Pedals' though noted it can't conclusively verify that.

"While many have developed an emotional attachment to the upright bear, it is important to recognize that all black bears are wildlife," said DEP spokesman Bob Considine. "They are not pets. They are capable of doing damage, even in a compromised state."

Half the speakers at the committee hearing made references to Pedals; Lesniak called the bear “a symbol of the closeness between animals and human beings.”

“Pedals was an ambassador for his species,” said Doris Lin, director of legal affairs for The League of Humane Voters of New Jersey. “He was special. But his gentle spirit was typical of black bears. Like the other 549 bears who were killed last week, he just wanted to eat and to live.”

“The bears want to coexist with us,” said Kimberly Nagelhout of the League of Humane Voters. “Hunting is not a solution but a permanent commitment to the problem. We need garbage containment, attract and control and bear education.”

The bear hunt in New Jersey is actually “a slaughter,” said Brian Hackett, New Jersey state director of the Humane Society of the United States, in part because the state allows up to 30 percent of the state’s estimated bear population to be hunted each year.

“That level of killing is absolutely, totally unstainable and could jeopardize the future of New Jersey’s bears,” Hackett said.

A bear hunt is needed to limit problems for New Jersey’s agricultural sector, said Ed Wengryn, a research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau.

Not only do bears eat the crops, they wreck them through something called ‘bear rolls,’ he said.

“They’ll go into the cornfields, the hayfields and soybean fields and roll. They get itchy, they get scratchy, and they’ll literally knock down a quarter-acre of crop in a night,” Wengryn said. “When you lose a quarter-acre in a 15-acre field a night over a six week period, you’ve lost pretty much half of your crop.”

Farmers also have problems in the spring, when sheep and goats are killed by bears, Wengryn said.

‘So they end up becoming the responsible person for controlling what we call the problem bears,” said Wengryn. “They’re attacking our crops, they’re attacking our livestock.”

Wengryn said that as bears migrate throughout New Jersey, the Farm Bureau worries that damage to New Jersey’s two largest crops, cranberries and blueberries, “could be economically devastating” if the bear populations become significant.

“They’re moving south. They’re moving throughout the state. There have been bear sightings as far south as Cape May,” Wengryn said. “So when the bill talks about bear country, the state is bear country at this point. They are everywhere.”

The vote in the Senate Economic Growth Committee was along party lines. In addition to Lesniak, Democrats Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez and Jim Whelan were in favor, while Republican Sens. Steve Oroho and Joseph Kyrillos were opposed.

Oroho lives in Sussex County, the heart of New Jersey’s bear country, where more than half of the bears killed in last week’s hunt were harvested. He said he has seen the surprising extent of ‘bear roll’ damage at farms in his district and that garbage-control efforts in the bill should be applied statewide.

Oroho described how his son, Sean, survived a bear attack in 2005 at age 19. He was working at a golf driving range when the vehicle that picks up the balls got stuck; when he got out to push the vehicle out, a bear charged him that worried he was threatening her two cubs.

“Sean was smart enough to get back in. It was not a very sturdy vehicle and had to – he was sitting there as the bear was ramming it for about 10 minutes,” Oroho said. “So it does occur.”

Different legislation with the same goal advanced in an Assembly committee last week. That proposal, A3527, would remove black bear from the list of game species, which would mean it couldn’t be legally hunted.

 


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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