TRENTON - New Jersey's burgeoning black-bear population was reduced by 40 early Monday in the first five hours of the state's first bear hunt since 2005, officials said.
Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese said that by noon, hunters had taken a mix of males, females, and cubs weighing between 140 and 370 pounds. The largest was a 367-pound male taken by a Sussex County hunter. The first was a 2-year-old male shot by a Lyndhurst police officer.
The six-day hunt started before sunrise. Wildlife officials have incorporated an annual hunt into their bear management plan, saying a hunt is needed to reduce a black-bear population now thought to number about 3,400.
"The overall goal is to reduce the number of bears to a more manageable number, while improving public safety by reducing bear encounters with people," DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said.
State Fish and Game Council records show 943 bear sightings and 1,994 damage or nuisance complaints through the first 11 months of the year. All but four of the state's 21 counties reported bear activity this year.
This year's hunt is scheduled to end after sunset Saturday. At least 6,680 bear-hunting permits were issued. Each hunter is entitled to one bear regardless of age or sex.
The DEP estimates that 300 to 700 bears will be killed. Officials are monitoring the numbers and will call off the hunt early if they determine enough bears have been taken to manage the population.
One hunter who met with early success, Anthony Lingenfelter Jr. of Howell, told the Newark Star-Ledger that it was quite a struggle for four men to lug his catch - at 327 pounds - through the woods and to his truck.
"I think I'm done for a lifetime," said Lingenfelter, who regularly hunts turkeys.
Also Monday, a Superior Court judge kept in place a limit on the number of hunt protesters allowed at two wildlife areas.
The DEP set a limit of 25 protesters at the Pequest Wildlife Management Area in Warren County and Whittingham Wildlife Management Area in Sussex County. Judge Stephen Skillman agreed Monday, refusing to lift the limit.
Ragonese said the number of protesters was small - a handful at Pequest and about a dozen at Whittingham. No incidents were reported.
Two animal rights groups - Animal Protection League and Bear Education and Resource Group - tried to stop the hunt before it started. An appeals court refused to halt the hunt Friday, and a judge acting on a petition to the state Supreme Court refused Saturday to grant an emergency stay.