Council OKs emergency NJ bear hunt; Murphy still won’t allow it
TRENTON – Citing “imminent peril” if there isn’t a black bear hunt, state wildlife regulators approved an emergency rule Tuesday that would allow for a hunt next month. But Gov. Phil Murphy, who would have to agree, will not sign off.
The reason there isn’t a bear hunt on the calendar already, despite the Fish and Game Council recommending one in March, is that DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette hasn’t acted on the bear management plan. Without one approved, there cannot be a hunt.
Murphy said as a candidate for governor four years ago that he opposed the bear hunt, but one was conducted – though not on state lands – until this year under terms of a management plan he inherited that was approved while Gov. Chris Christie was in office. That plan expired earlier this year.
"There will be no bear hunt this year, period. I can say that definitely," Murphy said Wednesday. "... We are committed to nonlethal, humane but smart and safe means to control the population, the bear population."
The state budget includes $1.5 million for nonlethal approaches to managing the bear population, said Dave Golden, director of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.
“It was pushed for by the DEP commissioner, Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, and consistent with what the governor’s ideas were about black bear management ever since he came into office in that there is an opportunity to manage a black bear population in the absence of a hunt, even a growing black bear population,” Golden said.
Unanimous, but not at odds?
The Fish and Game Council voted unanimously for the emergency rule, and a number of members made clear their preference for the hunt throughout the meeting, noting damage to crops and other concerns. But council chairman Frank Virgilio said it was not an antagonistic vote.
“Council is not at odds with the policy that the governor and the commissioner’s office is bringing forward,” Virgilio said. “It’s council’s responsibility both under the Supreme Court ruling and statutory requirements that council provides all the tools in the toolbox to the commissioner and the governor for decision-making. This emergency rule is one more tool in the toolbox.”
Council member Rick Lathrop said the emergency rule is needed due to “concerns for the imminent peril to public health, safety and welfare.”
“No speculation is needed to know where the New Jersey bear population is going because we’ve been there before,” Lathrop said. “As we reduce the amount of hunting, we can see that population goes up. As we increase the amount of hunting, the population goes down – always sustaining the population but keeping it within a more manageable level.”
Lathrop said the bear population is estimated at 3,158 now and if projected to top 4,000 if there isn’t a hunt. He said when hunts were suspended from 2005 to 2009, the bear population and the number of incidents reported by people doubled.
“Nonlethal is not so much bear population management but more in terms of human behavior management or control,” he said. “And so, it’s useful but it’s really not enough as New Jersey’s bear population is expected to expand.”
Not the final word
Golden said the hunt still couldn’t happen unless LaTourette approves the overall management plan. It also would require Murphy’s approval to proceed with an emergency rule because it would compress the normal timeframe for rulemaking, he said.
“The process could happen quickly enough for there to be a hunt in October,” Golden said. “However, there’s a lot of things that would have to fall in place in order for that hunt to be enacted.”
The statement from Murphy's office made clear those things will not fall in place.
Support for the emergency rule was common but not unanimous when the public got to speak at the meeting.
“It’s been proven numerous times there is no cost-effective viable option other than a management hunt for bears in New Jersey,” said Mike Bush of United Bowhunters of New Jersey. “The taxpayers cannot afford it. We already have the highest taxes in the country. We’re doing it for free, and we’re also keeping the bear population at a healthy carrying capacity.”
“Personally, I think it’s best to let the hunters deal with bear management, rather than spending money that you’re just going to pour down the drain. It just makes no sense,” said Nicole Member of Stanhope.
“Although it’s nice that Gov. Murphy is giving you $1.5 million to look into nonlethal forms, it seems that basically that $1.5 million is being used for public education and not for controlling the black bear population, which is just going to continue to expand if no hunt is approved,” said Lou Martinez of
Millburn resident Janet Piszar, founder of Coalition for Animals, said the opposition to Murphy’s moratorium on the bear hunt is “déjà vu all over again and very reminiscent of the Jon Corzine administration.”
“More bears does not equal more aggressive or more dangerous bears, and that is proven in the history of bear management in New Jersey,” Piszar said.
How the money will be spent
The DEP aid it utilizes a number of nonlethal bear management strategies to reduce the number of human interactions with bears and is enhancing and expanding those methods with the dedicated $1.5 million in the DEP’s FY22 budget.
Golden said the $1.5 million added to the budget will go toward outreach and education, hiring 11 new employees including more conservation officers and purchasing equipment such as for handling immobilized bears. Strategies will include public education, field response to incidents, expanded local police training, research programs, county and local government support on things such as waste management and an emphasis on science and policy.
Not all council members were impressed by the spending, with one member noting it is less than what then-Gov. Christie Whitman put toward similar goals more than 20 years ago.
“It seems like every time we get a commissioner or a governor that doesn’t like bear hunting, they throw a bunch of money at you,” said council member Ed Kertz. “Now, this is $1.5 million. What’s going to happen after that money is spent. You’re going to have all these employees that you’re going to have to pay now, and where’s that money going to come from?”
Virgilio noted that Murphy has emphasized nonlethal bear management since he was a candidate and said the council will “embrace” that. He noted the plan Golden outlined extends into fiscal 2023.
“They felt that there was time to put enhanced pressure on nonlethal controls, and they are putting their money where their mouth was,” Virgilio said. “They didn’t just make the statement and then leave it there. They’re backing it with money.”
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.