Unable to entirely stop a bear hunt, as he’d pledged as a candidate, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order Monday closing all state lands in northwest New Jersey to bear hunting this season.

The order covers all state forests, parks, recreation areas, historic sites, wildlife management areas and natural areas.

The Sierra Club, which opposes the hunt, estimates the order affects around 700,000 acres, although that estimate appears to include state lands outside the bear-hunt zone. Director Jeff Tittel estimated around 40 percent of lands in the state that get hunted are public lands.

“It’s the first time we had a governor in eight years that’s actually looking at trying to do something about the bear hunt,” Tittel said. “However, the concern we have is that just by not allowing the hunt on state lands, it may shift the hunt to other lands and so the number of bears that actually get killed may not change.”

“It still would allow the hunt on county parklands, private lands, farmland and other open space that may be owned by nonprofits or others,” Tittel said. “It’s a step, but we think the governor should keep to his commitment of having a moratorium for a bear hunt on all lands, not just state lands.”

Murphy said his hands are tied by state law, which gives the state Fish and Game Council regulatory authority for authorizing a bear hunt. The council has authorized hunts through 2021.

“Today, I am fulfilling my commitment to stop the bear hunt to the greatest extent of my authority by ordering the Department of Environmental Protection to prevent bear hunting on all public lands under the DEP’s jurisdiction during the 2018 season,” Murphy said, in a prepared statement. “I am also calling on the Legislature to take action on this critical issue. My first concern has always been public safety and before we authorize another hunt, we should review all non-lethal options.”

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Fish and Wildlife
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Fish and Wildlife

Cody McLaughlin, a trustee with the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, said Murphy’s order will negatively impact this year’s bear hunt and public safety and that his group hopes the Murphy administration will revisit the decision.

“It’s really distressing that he would take these great outdoor opportunities away from New Jersey’s hunters, who pay for them in the first place,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said the state’s bear management plan includes non-lethal methods but that the hunt is an integral part.

“We’re a little shocked and distressed,” McLaughlin said. “Anybody that has read the science knows that New Jersey’s bear population is the densest in the country. In addition to that, we also have the densest population of people in the county. It’s not a sustainable model. Those two things just can’t coexist in the same space at the same time.”

Black bears once lived in forests across New Jersey, but their numbers dwindled to less than 100 in northwest New Jersey by the mid-1900s as the state urbanized. The state put limits on bear hunting from 1953 to 1971, then ended it entirely.

The hunt returned in 2003, when 328 bears were killed, and 2005, when 298 were killed. The hunts were then stopped again during Gov. Jon Corzine’s term, but returned under Gov. Chris Christie.

In the last eight years, just over 3,400 bears were killed, an average of about 430 a year.

The Fish and Game Council hasn’t yet released details regarding this year’s hunt. Last year, bow hunting began in October, followed by firearm hunting in December.

The council is next scheduled to meet Sept. 11.

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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