OXFORD, N.J. - The big black bear lay on the flatbed of Paul Bonamassa's pickup, with outstretched paws and a gutted stomach. An admiring crowd gathered.
It took six men to drag the giant beast out of the Warren County swamplands and, on Wednesday afternoon, Bonamassa and two fellow hunters took their kill to the Pequest Wildlife Management Area weigh station to be processed and tagged.
Two days earlier, the trio had made the nearly two-hour trek from Camden County to participate in the state's first black bear hunt since 2005. They took a week off work and bagged their first trophy on the third day.
"We were crawling around all night to get this one," yelled Bonamassa, 43, an electrician from Mount Ephraim, as he jumped from the truck.
His friend Chris Brennan, a carpenter from Bellmawr, had been waiting for hours around the swamp, near the Catfish Water Tower in Worthington State Forest, when the bear lumbered into sight. He hit it from 70 yards with a 12-gauge slug, Brennan said.
The bear fell, got up, took another slug, and ran off. The group searched for the dying creature until nightfall, then returned in the morning and found it dead.
Now, its furry body hung upside-down from a heavy scale.
"The moment of truth," said Brennan, 42, as he waited to hear how many pounds they had lugged three-quarters of a mile to the pickup.
"Four hundred thirty-two," announced a New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife official, who explained that before it was gutted, the animal's "live weight" was over 500 pounds.
"Stud," yelled Bonamassa, slapping Brennan on the back.
So it went Wednesday, halfway through New Jersey's controversial six-day bear hunt, for which the state granted 7,000 permits. The state is allowing hunters to spread across 1,000 square miles of Morris, Sussex, Warren, Bergen, Hunterdon, Passaic and Somerset Counties in the hope they will reduce what officials say is the region's dangerously large black bear population.
While participants say they are enjoying the rare opportunity, the hunt has drawn protests and unsuccessful legal action from animal-protection groups.
Some, including Mark Mauriello, a former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, have raised concerns that the number of bear complaints may be inflated and that nonlethal control measures have not been properly explored or enforced.
"It's an unnecessary hunt," said Sue Russell, a wildlife consultant for the Animal Protection League of New Jersey.
State officials have described the effort as an effective way to reduce growing complaints about black bears' encroaching on suburban and urban areas, eating livestock and pets, munching on trash, causing property damage, and creating fear among homeowners.
Three days in, the hunt was already a record-breaker, with 426 kills recorded by 5 p.m., according to a DEP spokesman. The totals for similar six-day hunts were 328 in 2003 and 298 in 2005.
"The numbers are up because we have a lot more bears now," said Patrick Carr, a senior wildlife biologist for the Division of Fish and Wildlife who was overseeing the Pequest checkout. At the station, hunters - who are allowed one kill during the week - were given pamphlets containing recipes for Bear Pastry and Zesty Bear Tenders.
There are an estimated 3,400 black bears in New Jersey, Carr said, up from 2,400 in 2005. In 1970, the last year the state had a regular bear-hunting season, black bears were mostly confined to areas near the state's northern border.
Now the animals, among the largest black bears in North America, are in every county of New Jersey, Carr said.
Officials had expected hunters would reduce the population by up to 700 bears, he said.
Gov. Christie said Tuesday that he reserved the right to halt the hunt if it greatly outpaced expectations. As of Wednesday, there had been no discussions about ending early, Carr said.
"We have an extremely productive bear population that can support a hunt," Carr said. "Just as we do with turkeys, squirrels, rabbits, and deer," state officials consider bear hunting a "safe, legal and responsible" use of wildlife resources.
Hunters described a bear population growing bolder and more dangerous.
"The encounters are getting worse and worse," said Charlie Danza, who owns a hunting shop in Wanaque, Passaic County.
His customers tell of bears racing through the woods with garbage cans stuck on their head, Danza said, and deer hunters report they sometimes have to race bears to their kills.
"Some of the bears follow the shots," he said. "You think they'd be afraid of them."
Danza has been cornered by bears while hunting, he said, and has had bears on his property.
"They stomp their paws and chomp their teeth," he said.
Complaint calls involving bears have nearly doubled since 2001, Carr said, with more than 3,000 statewide last year. There have been 217 incidents of dangerously aggressive bear behavior this year, he said.
"Bears are supposed to be a stealth animal, an animal that shouldn't be seen other than at night, not at 2 in the afternoon when you're sitting on your porch with 10 people," Danza said.
"We don't want them to be exterminated. They're beautiful animals. We just want them to go down to a natural, healthy number."
The animal's majestic appearance - it is not unusual for a black bear in the region to weigh 500 or even 600 pounds, Carr said - was likely on the minds of about two dozen protesters who appeared at weigh stations Monday. "Killers," shouted some, who have called the hunt "the Black Bear Massacre."
Critics were granted permits to protest on the hunt's first and final days only and were not present Wednesday.
At the Pequest weigh station, groups of proud hunters arrived with evidence of their prowess.
"What's been the biggest yet?" asked Jason Ferrante, 30, of Pittstown, Hunterdon County, who brought in a 180-pound male bear. He had been playing poker on his cell phone, passing the hours, when the bear walked up on him.
"We had a 651-pound dressed," Carr said, referring to an animal that was gutted in the field. "And a 701-pound live weight," he said.
For some, the pleasure of the hunt was found in the months of preparation, scouting woods and trails, and laying bait piles to attract their prey. ("Bears love cinnamon doughnuts," Danza said.)
For others, like Chris Brennan, it was sharing the experience of felling a 500-pounder with his 22-year-old son, also named Chris, who was with him in the woods.
He understands both sides of the hunt debate, the elder Brennan said, but on Wednesday he was enjoying his success.
"I'll probably have it mounted," he said.