FREDON, N.J. - The last of New Jersey's five scheduled state-sponsored bear hunts began Monday, as wildlife officials and opponents of the hunt sparred over whether the hunt has been effective and should be renewed.

According to the Department of Environmental Protection, 7,800 permits were issued to about 6,000 hunters this season. No problems were reported the first day, spokesman Larry Ragonese said.

Marc Beardslee of Vernon was the first to arrive at a state science station with a bear that he had killed, Ragonese said.

"Our properties are getting really overpopulated with the bears, so I'm glad I can help," Beardslee told NJ.com, adding that he got a "nice clear shot" of the female with his shotgun because it was very close to a path.

About 30 protesters gathered outside the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area in Fredon to denounce the hunt as cruel and unnecessary.

"I feel so bad for the bears that are getting killed. These bears have emotions; they're just like us," said protester Bill Crain, a psychology professor at City University of New York. "The mothers are going to die, and the cubs will be left as orphans."

Crain has been arrested at five previous bear protests for leaving the boundaries set up for demonstrators but said that his wife "says if I get arrested, that will be a little too much this time."

While the overall number of bears in New Jersey has decreased since the state instituted the hunt in 2010, critics point to the mauling death of Rutgers University student Darsh Patel in September as evidence of too much focus on killing the animals and not enough on educating the public.

About 1,600 bears have been killed in the last four hunts, according to DEP. In 2010, 3,400 bears were living north of I-80, roughly the upper one-eighth of the state, according to a state Fish and Game Council report that supported the resumption of the bear hunt, in part to ensure public safety. The DEP estimates that about 2,500 bears are in that area now.

The number of reports of aggressive bears has dropped since the hunt resumed in 2010, but some incidents have risen sharply this year.

Reports of Category 1 bears, defined as bruins that are aggressive and a danger to humans or livestock, fell from 235 in 2010 to 129 in 2013. Yet while home entries and attempted entries fell from 90 in 2010 to 33 last year, they have risen to 44 through late November. In addition, reports of bears killing livestock rose from 21 to 35 between 2012 and 2013.

Though the hunt is focused on New Jersey's western and northern counties, state wildlife officials say bears have been spotted in all 21 counties.

New Jersey's Bear Hunt

The Hunt

This year's hunt will run through Saturday in counties in Northern and northwestern New Jersey. Any sex or size bear is fair game, including cubs. Limit is one bear per hunter.

Bear Population

The state Fish and Game Council estimated in 2010 that roughly 3,400 bears lived in New Jersey north of I-80. About 1,600 bears have been killed in the four bear hunts, and the Department of Environmental Protection estimates there are now about 2,500 bruins in those areas.

Fatal Attack

Darsh Patel, a Rutgers University student hiking with his friends in Apshawa Preserve in West Milford, was killed by a 300-pound black bear in September. Bear hunt critics say Patel's death shows that more education and warning signs are needed.

The Numbers

Overall reports of aggressive bears have fallen from 235 in 2010 to 129 in 2013, though there was a slight increase from 2012 to 2013. Reports of home entries and attempted entries fell from 90 in 2010 to 33 last year but have risen recently, to 44 through Nov. 20.

Source: NJ Department of Environmental ProtectionEndText