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N.J. hunters ready for bear season

New Jersey hunters take to the woods Monday for a controversial season aimed at thinning the state’s growing population of black bears.
Opponents of the bear hunt went to court to try to block it, but failed.Jose F. Moreno / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

New Jersey hunters take to the woods Monday for a controversial season aimed at thinning the state’s growing population of black bears, whose hungry foraging has frightened suburban residents.

Up to 5,000 hunters were expected to take part in the six-day hunt — only the second in New Jersey in 35 years — which begins at sunrise Monday.

John Rogalo planned to set out with his 12-year-old son to hunt in Allamuchy Mountain State Park.

“It’s a chance to harvest a bear,” said Rogalo, 47, of Stanhope, a self-employed contractor. “I just view hunting as a family tradition. I started at 10 with my Dad. Now my son will be with me.”

Black bears have rebounded from near extinction in the state but the loss of habitat to development is forcing many of the animals to seek food in populated areas.

The hunt, restricted to an area of about 1,600 square miles in the state’s northwest corner, is expected to draw thousands of hunters armed with shotguns or old-fashioned muzzle-loading rifles.

The hunt has been sharply criticized by animal rights advocates, who call it inhumane and went to court Friday in an unsuccessful bid to stop it.

‘Not rooted in public safety’
“This hunt is not rooted in public safety,” said Janine Motta, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance, which sued to stop the hunt. “It’s rooted in providing a hunting opportunity, getting trophies for walls and rugs for floors.”

But hunters and the state say the hunt — which coincides with white-tailed deer season — is necessary, given the bears’ increasing incursions into backyards and trash cans.

“Most guys will just go deer hunting, but if they see a bear and there’s an opportunity, they’ll take it,” said Frank Dara, chairman of the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. “It’s basically a conservation thing. It’s something that has to be done to control the number of bears.”

The state’s last bear hunt was in 2003, when 328 were killed. That was the first bear season since 1970, when hunts were suspended because the black bear population had dropped to about 100 animals.

Today, the population is estimated at 1,600 to 3,200 and complaints and sightings are up sharply all over the state.

Last July, a 142-pound female bear bit the leg of a sleeping camper at High Point State Park, in the state’s still rural northwest corner. The camper’s injuries were minor. The bear was shot by a state biologist.

Garbage bears
A month earlier in Egg Harbor City, near Atlantic City in southern New Jersey, a 150-pound bruin rummaged through garbage cans, ate from bird feeders and jumped a fence a block from an elementary school during a weeklong stay.

Opponents of the bear hunt planned to gather at a weigh station in Wawayanda State Park, with teams also fanning out into the woods looking for bears that have been shot but not killed.

“It’ll be volunteers looking to help any injured or wounded bears they come across, or fielding calls from the public for any wounded bears they find on their property,” Motta said.