A bear hunt that has nobody happy starts Monday in northwest New Jersey.

Though a hunt is happening for the ninth straight year, after just two were held in the 39 years before that, hunting groups have sued because Gov. Phil Murphy ordered state lands closed to hunters.

But the fact the hunt is happening at all given the governor’s opposition is a testament to the unusual structure of New Jersey’s hunting laws, and it has animal advocates angry that Murphy didn’t fulfill a campaign pledge to stop the bear hunt.

A New Jersey governor is often described as the most powerful in the nation – able to nominate judges, county prosecutors, the whole Cabinet, even veto meeting minutes to block actions of state agencies and boards.

But the Fish and Game Council is different and has had final say on hunting policy since 1945. Because a bear management plan is in place, the hunt remains intact. And although governors appoint the council’s members, the current panel consists of holdovers that predate Murphy. Moreover, most of its members have to be sportsmen and farmers recommended by those groups’ associations.

Three members are farmers, recommended by the Agricultural Convention. Six are sportsmen, recommended by the State Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. One is a public member who must be knowledgeable in land use management and soil conservation practices. And one is the chair of the state’s Endangered and Nongame Advisory Committee.

The structure angers bear advocate Barbara Sachau of Raritan Township.

“We cannot trust this council, that’s the problem. You cannot trust this council because it is slanted and biased and made up of only hunters and animal killers,” Sachau said. “We don’t have any representation from ordinary people who want to respect and share this earth with animals.”

Court rulings in 1976 and 2002 upheld the council’s authority. The earlier case dealt specifically with the makeup of the council’s membership.

Bear hunts in NJ

The Fish and Game Council predates the state Department of Environmental Protection by 25 years. The state Division of Fish and Wildlife, under a different name originally, dates back more than 50 years longer than that, to 1892.

Black bears are native to New Jersey. They primarily live in northwest New Jersey, north of Interstate 80 and west of Interstate 287, but can be found throughout the state, according to the Division of Fish and Wildlife.

The numbers of bears in the state dwindled through the 1800s as forests were cleared and settlers killed them to protect crops and livestock. The Fish and Game Council classified them as a game animal in 1953, which put limits on hunting. At that time, fewer than 100 existed in the state.

There were limited archery and firearm hunting in 10 seasons from 1958 to 1970, in which 46 bears were killed. The council then closed the hunting season entirely in 1971.

Bear hunting wouldn’t return until 2003, when a season was opened to firearm hunters under Gov. Jim McGreevey. A year later, the administration changed its position, and a court blocked the hunt because the council hadn’t developed a comprehensive bear management plan.

There was also a hunt in 2005, when the council adopted a plan under Gov. Richard Codey. But none was held in the four years after that because Gov. Jon Corzine’s environmental protection commissioner canceled it by withdrawing the previous year’s approval of the bear management plan.

Annual hunts returned starting in 2010, when Gov. Chris Christie took office. Just over 4,000 bears have been killed since the hunts returned, including 3,426 since 2010.

The current bear management plan was adopted in 2015 and could keep hunts intact through 2021.

Murphy’s order blocking the hunt from state land, which pushes it onto private and federal land, was criticized by Fish and Game council member Agust Gudmundsson.

“This is something being imposed upon us outside of the hunters’ control. Hunters like knowing where their money is being spent and how and having some control over it. That’s why we’re all empowered with the powers we have,” Gudmundsson said. “This is kind of an intrusion on their revenue and on the fees that they pay. How do we seek compensation or recompense?”

Hunters say black bear management is funded through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and federal Pittman-Robertson grants, derived from a federal tax on hunting equipment and ammunition. That money gets supplemented by state funding.

The archery hunt runs from Oct. 8 to 13. Muzzle-loading rifles are allowed from Oct. 11 to 13. The firearm hunting season will be from Dec. 3 to 8, the same week as the firearm deer season. It could be extended to Dec. 12 to 15, depending on how many bears are killed earlier.

As of Thursday, 3,487 of the 11,000 available hunting permits had been issued. Last year, 8,790 permits were sold.

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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