UPPER FREEHOLD – At Tuesday’s first Fish and Game Council meeting since Gov. Phil Murphy barred this year’s bear hunts from state lands, the governor came under criticism from both sides of the hunting debate.

Janet Piszar, campaign manager of a bear-protection group called Public Trust Wildlife Management, said Murphy promised a ban, not a rollback in acreage that might not ultimately reduce the number of bears killed.

“Gov. Murphy has lost credibility. The people have no trust in him. They see him as same-old, same-old politician – promise anything during your campaign and then backpedal,” Piszar said.

Members of the Fish and Game Council – which has a lot of authority over wildlife decisions and adopted a long-term bear plan that includes hunts during Gov. Chris Christie’s administration – seemed unhappy with Murphy but were somewhat muted in their criticism.

Its acting chairman, Frank Virgilio, said he views the situation as a great opportunity to bring different groups and viewpoints together to re-examine nonlethal bear management.

“So I don’t really always look for the bad in an issue. I look at the good in an issue and the areas where we could find common ground. I think this is an opportunity to find common ground,” Virgilio said.

One council member, Agust Gudmundsson, complained that Murphy’s order has caused confusion and said funds from the state budget, not hunters’ fees, should cover any additional costs incurred.

“Sportsmen want to know what to do. This came kind of abruptly. Our bear management policy is pretty well thought out,” Gudmundsson said. “Trying to scramble in the last minute is going to cause a lot of confusion. People want to know how to do the right thing.”

Another council member, Phil Brodhecker, said that rather than limit the hunt, it should be extended. He said the North Jersey bear population is now in check but isn’t being reduced.

“Our bear population is from one end of the state to the other, and years ago it was just in the northern area. And all we’ve been managing, counting, tagging, is just the northern area,” said Brodhecker. “Farmers in central and south Jersey are starting to see the damage to their crops that we saw 20, 25 years ago, and we’re not managing those populations yet. We’re letting them grow unchecked.”

Other hunt supporters who testified were even more direct.

“We believe that all wildlife populations should be managed by science and not public opinion polls,” said Liz Thompson, a research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau.

Ed Markowski, a trustee of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, said he fears Murphy’s order is a first step toward wider regulation of all types hunting and trapping and that a response is being crafted – the implication being that it would be a lawsuit.

“The likelihood of this ban of hunting on state property actually protecting the public is about as ludicrous as I can think,” Markowski said. “It’s more like putting the public at a greater risk because these bears won’t be adversely conditioned.”

Council members asked a series of questions to state Division of Fish and Wildlife officials regarding the details of the hunts, which include an archery segment from Oct. 8 to 13 and a firearms segment from Dec. 3 to 8. The shooting hunt could be extended to Dec. 12 to 15.

Among the questions: What about bears that are shot on federal, local or private land, then wander onto state property before dying? And what about a wounded bear that then enters state property? The advice in both cases was to call state conservation officers.

Officials said answers are coming soon, in a frequently-asked-question document being developed for both the public and state workers who handle phone inquiries.

Sean Cianciulli, acting chief of the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Bureau of Law Enforcement, said conservation officers will try to ensure there’s not hunting on state lands “to the best of our ability” but that its resources are limited and public health and safety comes first.

“We’ll address complaints as they come in,” Cianciulli said. "Obviously public health and welfare are our primary concerns. We’re going to address a hunting accident or a house that’s been shot first and triage from there down.”

Carole Stanko, who heads the state’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, said hunters are approaching private landowners to open up more property to hunting and that it isn’t yet clear how much land will ultimately be available.

“No stretches of state land are so large as to contain a bear within its entire home range,” Stanko said. “So they wander in and out of state property all the time.”

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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