The state Fish and Game Council may propose New Jersey’s first bear hunt since 2005.

The council has advocated hunting to reduce conflicts between bears and people since the last hunt was suspended in 2006, first by state courts and then by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

Gov. Chris Christie, who during his campaign endorsed a bear hunt, is still in favor of one, spokesman Michael Drewniak said Friday. Lawmakers introduced a bill last week to levy a new $28 fee on bear hunters that would raise money for the state’s labor-intensive bear management.

The council will examine the latest bear-management plan and turn its recommendation over to Acting Commissioner Robert Martin of the state Department of Environmental Protection, who has the ultimate say over a hunt.

The proposed bill would give the Fish and Game Council sole discretion over whether to have a bear hunt from year to year.

“It’s a comprehensive policy that includes everything we can do to avoid human-bear conflicts,” council member Dr. Leonard Wolgast said. “Controlling the population is an essential core. The bear population keeps growing without hunting becoming part of the policy. All of the problems keep growing.”

The American black bear, Ursus americanus, is found throughout New Jersey. Sixteen of the state’s 21 counties — including Atlantic and Ocean — reported bear activity in 2009.

The council was scheduled to vote on the plan today, but pushed it back to March while it awaits the results of a study by East Stroudsburg University. The university’s biologists are using DNA from purposely snagged fur and trapped animals to get better information on New Jersey’s black bear population.

This technique is thought to be more accurate than previous estimates state biologists made by trapping and tagging bears.

Opposition likely

The council’s recommendations promise to create controversy, much as in 2005, when bear-loving groups filed lawsuits and staged protests.

Janet Piszar, director of the nonprofit Bear Education and Resource Group, accused the state Division of Fish and Wildlife of manipulating policies and enforcement for the unstated purpose of promoting a hunt.

Piszar said the agency has been lax in enforcing laws that prohibit people from feeding bears — either intentionally by hand or inadvertently by leaving barbecue grills, bird feeders or full garbage bags outside their homes. And she said the agency allowed problem bears to raid and pillage neighborhoods to reinforce the public impression that hunting was the solution. Piszar said the state has not done enough to pursue nonlethal management.

“If 50 percent of the bears are hunted and removed, nothing prevents the remaining 50 percent from going back into residential areas where the garbage is. That’s why hunts don’t diminish bear complaints,” she said.

Wolgast said hunting has lasting benefits for neighbors who live in bear country. Bears quickly learn to avoid people after the short hunting season, he said.

“Part of it is to teach bears to avoid people. After the 2005 and 2003 hunts, the number of bear problems dropped significantly,” he said.

Larry Herrighty, assistant director of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, disputed the notion that his agency has been lax in monitoring human activity that encourages bad bear behavior.

“Very few homeowners were doing things wrong. When they were, we educated them,” he said.

“We enforce bear statutes. We have extensive responses to nuisance complaints. If necessary, we euthanize problem bears. There is no one method that will solve the problem. It has to be a comprehensive policy,” he said.

A 2006 DEP report found that injecting wild bears with birth control hormones was not a feasible way to control the population. Injecting bears would be expensive and difficult, since the bruins are hard to trap, as they range over a large geographic area.

Fewer bear problems

New Jersey had fewer overall bear problems last year compared with 2008. The Fish and Game Council speculated that a good crop of acorns kept more bears in the woods and out of trouble. Property damage and nuisance complaints were up slightly, while more sightings were reported in 2009.

One New Jersey bear reportedly attacked a human in 2009 — a bow-hunter who came upon two adult bears. One of the bears inexplicably charged him and he shot and killed it, according to the Fish and Game Council. The hunter was not injured.

Another bear injured a Sussex County man by knocking him hard to the ground. Henry Rouwendal, of Vernon Township, told the Newark Star-Ledger that he was putting luggage in the back of his truck at night June 26 when a bear bumped him, apparently to get to a wrapped Italian hoagie in the back of the truck. The bear fled with the sandwich, leaving Rouwendal badly bruised.

Bears broke into 34 homes in 2009, compared with 71 incidents in 2008; damaged nine commercial beehives; and behaved aggressively toward people 36 times, compared with 28 such encounters in 2008.

In 2008, bears entered camping tents twice. No similar problems were reported last year.

Taxidermist Len Guthrie said he heard rumors of three bears spotted last year in the marshes off Indian Trail Road in his hometown of Middle Township, Cape May County. Middle Township police last year received two unsubstantiated reports of bears, including one that proved to be a dog.

Guthrie, a bear hunter, said he would consider taking a trip to Sussex County this year if the council allowed a hunt. And he would not be alone. He said he knows about 30 people in Cape May County who hunt bears in Pennsylvania or New York.

Guthrie said he likes the taste of bear meat, which he compared to pork. He has stuffed everything from grizzly bears to mountain goats for his clients.

Hunters today ask for taxidermy mounts showing bears in more naturalistic poses, not standing on their hind legs, pawing the air and snarling, he said.

“I love doing a piece where I’m free to do it the way I want to make it,” he said.

Guthrie said he would welcome the hunt because it probably would provide more work this fall for his business, Cape Taxidermy.

“Business is greatly needed because of the economy,” he said.

About the black bear

Average weight: 150 pounds for females, 400 pounds for males.

Diet: Mostly plants along with berries, nuts, acorns, dead animals and garbage.

Range: Most live in northwest New Jersey but bears are adaptable and range widely.

Reproduction: New Jersey sows produce three  cubs on average per litter.

Hibernation: Each winter bears enter a sluggish state called torpor, which is not true hibernation.

Source: N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife

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