Perspectives On The New Jersey Bear Hunt

Intercontinentally, wars are fought over oil and gas. In college bars, wars are fought over women and beer. In northern New Jersey, wars are fought over black bears.

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Pedals, North Jersey’s mascot for black bears, was appropriately named for his curious gait: he was a black bear that walked bipedally like a human. Pedals became famous after he debuted on Facebook video captured in a residential neighborhood in 2014. Although controversy emerged as to why Pedals walks on his hind legs, it was ultimately determined that the bear suffered an injury which made walking on all fours impractical, as seen by his dangling left front paw. He became a sensation as he reemerged in towns and neighborhoods across northern New Jersey in the subsequent months and years, and eventually garnered enough attention that a Facebook fan page was made in his honor. Just over two years after his rise to fame, Pedals met his ultimate fate at the hands of an archery hunter, who legally harvested the bear during the October bow season.

Protestors and anti-hunting coalitions alike rose in opposition of Pedal’s “murder” and the New Jersey bear hunting season. They argued that the bear should have been captured by New Jersey Fish and Wildlife and transported to a wildlife rehabilitation center. They also argued that New Jersey bear hunting is inhumane, unjust, and a gross example trophy hunters who are fueled by an unrelenting blood lust.

Raymond Lesniak, longtime state senator and now prospective state governor, held these beliefs. He introduced “Pedal’s Law” in honor of the slain black bear. The law would effectively ban bear hunting in New Jersey for five years, while implementing a nonlethal bear management program. The presumable notion is that after that five years is up, new legislation will move in and ban in New Jersey bear hunting for good.

If you do not see a problem in this, you are likely neglecting many aspects of wildlife management and economics, like Senator Lesniak and his supporters.

When Europeans colonized America, black bears roamed from the northern mountains of Jersey all the way down to the sandy peninsula we now call Cape May County. Viewing the 300+ pound omnivores as a species of competition and nuisance, colonists nearly wiped out Jersey’s bear population in just a couple centuries. In the early 1900s, realizing that wildlife and habitat was being depleted at an alarming rate, Americans implemented wildlife management initiatives at the state and federal levels. This included regulation in hunting, ban of market hunting, and habitat management initiative. Slowly but surely, the black bear population in New Jersey began to rebound. The population boom began in the 1980s, when population was estimated as low as less than 300 individuals. The population is now estimated to be around 3,500, making North Jersey one of the most densely populated black bear areas in the nation. Black bears, while innocent in look and captivating in nature, are becoming quite a problem in New Jersey since the population boom. In 2016, there were 1400 accounts of nuisance bears, which are reported as incidents that include property damage, home entry, livestock kills, and attacks against humans. This number may seem high, but it is imperative to note that this number is relatively low compared to the years without a bear season A year after New Jersey opened its first bear hunt in 2003, reports of nuisance encounters dropped by 42%. If New Jersey ends the bear hunt with Pedal’s Law, we can suppose the nuisance incidents to drastically increase yet again, right?

“Not so fast!” cry proponents of Pedal’s Law. They find this claim to be incredulous, stating that nonlethal tactics can substitute hunting as a control in population management. Nonlethal methods include artificial sterilization by DEP staff biologists, and relocation of transient bears. However, there are some serious problems with these proposed solutions. For one, New Jersey already has a response team for trapping and relocating nuisance bears, called The Bear Response Unit. According to a 2009 study conducted East Stroudsburg University Researchers in conjunction with Union County College and New Jersey Fish and Wildlife, the strike team is rendered virtually useless in their attempts to deter nuisance Jersey black bears. Their research indicates that all the bears trapped and relocated into the wild return to urban areas within 17 days of their release. In result, the response team is now forced to euthanize the reoccurring nuisance bears. By this logic, trapping and relocation is not an appropriate substitute to state managed hunting seasons.

What about the idea of artificial sterilization? On paper, this seems to be an effective control. This plan will implement a strategy in which female bears will be captured and artificially sterilized, or a male bear administered surgical vasectomy, by a biologist so they cannot reproduce. In turn, this will diminish the bear population without any causalities. However, the Division of Fish and Wildlife reports that there is no FDA approved contraceptive or sterilization drug readily available for use on black bears. If there were, the tactic would prove costly. Time and money would be needed to capture bears and administer a purchased drug or carry out a surgical procedure. New Jersey Fish and Wildlife operates on a budget, and to allocate financial resources to such a costly venture would irresponsible. Other species who are not thriving and amid a population boom like the black bear are in desperate need of Fish and Wildlife funding. Bobwhite quail and ruffed grouse are one example, and endangered species such as the Allegheny woodrat, bobcat, and Indiana bat gain hardly any public attention in comparison to the big, cuddly, and healthily populated black bear. Is it just to replace hunting with expensive substitutes when money could be more efficiently allocated to protecting species in need?

Not only does hunting save the state time and money in controlling black bear populations, but it also provides money to the Fish and Wildlife department. Every time there is a purchase of a hunting license or a bear tag, the revenue is returned directly to the state. With this funding, the state can fund biologists, game wardens, and management programs to ensure a thriving bear population. In fact, this method works so well that bears are now returning to their native range in South Jersey.

Nonlethal arguments against a bear hunt are rendered useless, but there still stands the issue of trophy hunting. Shouldn’t we, in the 21st century, ban such barbaric acts as trophy hunting and killing for fun? Yes, I believe we should. If this were a problem in New Jersey, I would be on the front lines to abolish it. The truth of the matter is, however, that trophy hunting is not an issue. In fact, it is outlawed. New Jersey has a law against wanton waste of wild game. The New Jersey Hunting & Trapping Digest states: “It is unlawful for any person to take, kill, or capture any game mammal or game bird and remove from the carcass the head, hide or antlers and leave the edible portions of the carcass and meat to waste except for a furbearer, crow or woodchuck.” To clarify, black bears are not listed as furbearers under New Jersey state regulations, and in turn cannot be hunted solely for taxidermy or trophy purposes.

 Black bear meat is reported as sweet and tender, although variable depending on diet. Daniel Boone, early pioneer and legendary woodsman of the 18th century, preferred black bear meat even over venison, making everything from bacon to ham out of its edible parts. New Jersey Fish & Wildlife offers a comprehensive recipe guide for prospective bear hunters. Any claim that the Jersey bear hunt is in support of trophy hunting is simply ludicrous.

Pedals the bear fueled the fire. His anthropomorphic gait and harmless appearance garnered support in the attack against bear hunting, and his death made him a martyr. In events like these, it is easy to let emotion and compassion cloud judgement. The fact of the matter is, protestors are allocating their resources in the wrong places. Instead of attacking hunting as a barbaric and ineffective practice, there must be a public understanding that hunting seasons are used as a wildlife management tool to gain money and propagate species. Black bears must be treated like all other wildlife in New Jersey, and must be managed in a manner that will serve to protect, propagate, and conserve their species while in compliance with an increasing human presence. Regardless of differing emotional perspectives, the New Jersey bear hunt has its purpose.

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