Banned from NJ land, bear hunters line up private options
New Jersey’s bear hunt begins in two weeks and hunters are hoping for a better experience even though the restriction banning it from state lands will remain in place for a second season.
If Gov. Phil Murphy had his way there wouldn’t be a hunt at all, but the state Fish and Game Council already had a multi-year bear management in place when he took office. He says banning it from state land is the most he can do, to the chagrin of animal-rights activists who want more.
Hunters aren’t happy, either, though they say that at least they’ve had time to plan.
“They’re still extremely angry,” said Cody McLaughlin, spokesman for the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance. “I mean, all of the reasons that this community of sportsmen has been angry have not been resolved.”
This will be New Jersey’s 10th straight year with a bear hunt, which hadn’t been held in the state for decades until returning in 2003, 2005 and then annually starting in 2010.
Fewer bears were killed in last year’s hunt, 225, than in any of those past 10. That included 140 bears during the October, six-day archery and muzzleloader segment and 85 during the 10-day firearm season in December.
McLaughlin said part of the challenge to hunters last year was that the decision to ban hunting on state lands wasn’t announced until the second half of August, leaving them little time to arrange meaningful alternative locations on privately owned land.
“Think about what goes into hunting. You know, there’s a reason they call it hunting and not shooting,” McLaughlin said. “When you’re hunting, you’re scouting locations, you’re patterning animals, you’re doing a whole bunch of preparation that starts well before the season begins.
“When they pull the rug out from under you, weeks before the hunt begins, you have to find a new spot, you have to get permission from a landowner. You have to do all that same scouting and preparation,” he said.
To secure alternative locations, McLaughlin said, some hunters pool their money in clubs that lease semi-wild shooting preserves. Some trade services such as welding, trapping or chopping firewood. And some fed-up owners of large properties grant access hoping to have their bear population thinned.
“Golf courses, farms, things of that nature, where bears are wreaking havoc,” he said.
As of the end of last week, only a bit over 20% of the 11,000 available hunting permits had been purchased, but McLaughlin said he expects participation will rebound.
“It was absolutely down last year,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t think that we’re going get back to our 2017 numbers again this year, but I do think that we’ll see some improvement.”