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N.J. bear hunt canceled due to Murphy administration stall tactics

NJ.com logo NJ.com 7/22/2021 Michael Sol Warren, nj.com
a close up of a stuffed animal: Hunters checked in their kill at the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area on the third day of New Jersey's Extended Black bear hunt. Starting today the hunters were allowed to use muzzleloading rifles. Fredon, NJ 10/13/16 (Robert Sciarrino | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com) NJ Advance Media for NJ.com © Bob Sciarrino/NJ Advance Media for NJ.com Hunters checked in their kill at the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area on the third day of New Jersey's Extended Black bear hunt. Starting today the hunters were allowed to use muzzleloading rifles. Fredon, NJ 10/13/16 (Robert Sciarrino | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com) NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

There will be no bear hunt in New Jersey this fall.

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife posted a notice online Wednesday that the 2021 black bear season is closed, as the state’s Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy has expired. According to a 2007 ruling by the state Supreme Court, no black bear hunt can be held in the state without such a policy in place.

With this announcement, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has effectively used a stall tactic to deliver on a campaign promise first made when the Democratic governor ran for office four years ago, to eliminate the polarizing hunt. It’s an issue that could become a talking point in state politics over the next few months, as Murphy seeks to defeat Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli for re-election.

Murphy announced last October that the 2020 bear hunt would be the last time the polarizing season was open under his watch, and that he intended to close the season beginning this year. Murphy had previously restricted the scope of the hunt by closing it on public lands with an executive order in 2018.

Ciattarelli swiftly condemned the Murphy administration’s lack of action.

“Once again, Phil Murphy opts for extreme ideology and hyper partisanship over science and common sense. Sadly, this time it’s putting people’s safety, property, and livelihood at risk,” Ciattarelli said in a statement.

“Just because the people most affected live in Republican counties doesn’t absolve Governor Murphy of responsibility for doing his job,” Ciattarelli added.

Murphy’s office declined to answer questions about the maneuvering, and instead reiterated Murphy’s commitment to ending the bear hunt in 2021.

The state black bear policy must be drawn up by the New Jersey Fish and Game Council, a body of appointed sportsmen and farmers plus one member of the public and one endangered species expert. Once the Council creates a new policy, it must be approved by the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

According to the minutes of the Council’s June 8 meeting, that body submitted a new black bear policy to Shawn LaTourette, then the acting commissioner of the DEP, in March. LaTourette, who has since been confirmed by the state Senate as DEP commissioner, met with Council chairman Frank Virgilio to discuss the new black bear policy the day before that meeting.

“Chairman Virgilio reported that a draft CBBMP was submitted to the Acting Commissioner back in March,” The June 8 minutes read. “The Acting Commissioner met with him yesterday, which he made no indication if he will approve it as written.”

As the new black bear policy waited on LaTourette’s desk, the existing policy expired, which closed the bear hunt by default.

Ray Lesniak, a former state senator from Union County and a vocal advocate for animal rights in New Jersey, joked to NJ Advance Media that he was going to grab a bottle of champagne to celebrate the news.

“I’m very pleased with Gov. Murphy’s leadership and Commissioner LaTourette’s leadership on this issue,” Lesniak said.

A trio of Republican state lawmakers representing Sussex County in Trenton blasted Murphy as putting politics above public safety, as they believe the culling of black bears in New Jersey remains necessary.

“Throughout this pandemic, Governor Murphy has preached about following the science, yet in this instance he is blindly obeying his version of political science while potentially jeopardizing the public safety of New Jerseyans,” said state Sen. Steve Oroho.

Cody McLaughlin, a spokesman for the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance and a supporter of the bear hunt, echoed that sentiment.

“We’ve said for years now that the governor figuratively had no plan to manage bears in New Jersey. Now he LITERALLY has no plan to manage bears in New Jersey,” McLaughlin said in a text to NJ Advance Media. “It’s a foolish stunt when the densest population of black bears on the continent is involved, and the NJOA and our coalition of sportsmen look forward to having a new governor come November.”

Virgilio, the council chairman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The DEP did not answer questions for LaTourette about the situation.

The bear hunt has long been a source of controversy in the state. The season was closed for decades starting in the 1970s, after the state’s bear population crashed. The hunt was resumed in 2003.

There were 410 bears killed during the 2020 hunt, up from 315 in 2019.

The DEP received 342 reports of bear activity in the state between January 1 and June 21 of this year, down from 494 reports during the same time period last year. Most of New Jersey’s bear population is centered on the northwestern parts of the state, like Sussex, Warren and Morris counties, though bears have been found to live in all 21 counties.

McLaughlin and other supporters of the hunt have warned the practice is necessary to manage the animals’s population and keep people safe, especially as New Jersey’s population increases and development spreads into more rural areas. Bear attacks against humans are considered to be extremely rare, though one elderly man was attacked in his West Milford garage last year.

No fatal bear attack had been recorded in New Jersey until 2014, when 22-year-old Darsh Patel, a Rutgers student and Edison native, was killed by a black bear while hiking with friends in the Apshawa Preserve, also in West Milford. The attack on Patel could be considered to be “one in a million,” experts said at the time.

Opponents of the hunt, like Lesniak, have argued the interactions between humans and bears can be sufficiently managed through non-lethal measures, like a ban on baiting and stricter requirements on trash management in areas of high bear activity.

Lesniak said he and other animal rights activists planned to work with LaTourette to develop a new black bear policy, different from what was put forward by the state Fish & Game Council, which would be non-lethal.

This story was updated at 5:36 p.m.

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Michael Sol Warren may be reached at mwarren@njadvancemedia.com.

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