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N.J. annual bear hunt to end next year, Gov. Phil Murphy says

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy says a state code will be amended to do away with the annual bear hunt that has raised the hackles of environmentalists, homeowners, and hunters, both pro and con.

A radio-collared black bear in Hardystone Township, Sussex County.
A radio-collared black bear in Hardystone Township, Sussex County.Read moreProvided

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday that the coming bear hunt will be the last under his administration, ending an annual event that has raised hackles — pro and con — of environmentalists, homeowners, and hunters because of the ways it has been handled over the years.

“The 2020 bear hunt will be the LAST,” Murphy tweeted. He also announced it at his daily media briefing on COVID-19.

Murphy said the New Jersey Fish and Game Council is proposing an amendment to the game code to suspend the black bear hunt after the 2020 season by allowing the current black bear management policy to lapse. A new plan will be proposed with non-lethal methods to control the bear population, he said.

But environmentalists say the governor is engaging in political theater because the policy was set to lapse anyway and he’s still allowing the 2020 hunt, which starts next week, to proceed. Meanwhile, pro-hunting groups say doing away with the hunt will only increase the bear population.

During his campaign in 2017, Murphy pledged to stop the hunt. Instead, his administration instituted a partial ban in 2018 that prohibited bear hunting on all state-owned land. So, hunters not only had to continue to get state permits, but also obtain permission from private land owners. That reduced the size of hunting zones by half.

New Jersey runs two separate hunts: bow and muzzle loading rifles in October, and other firearms in December. The goal has been to thin the number of black bears, and reduce the chances of interactions with humans.

“This is a complex issue,” Murphy said in the briefing. Suspending the hunt “would allow the council and Department of Environmental Protection to engage in a thorough and complete review of current scientific data and develop a new black bear policy that promotes public safety and welfare, while protecting important wildlife with a focus on nonlethal management techniques.”

He said the current hunt “will be the last bear hunt under my administration.” Murphy is running next year for a second term that would start in January 2022.

The Animal Protection League of New Jersey’s Bear Group, and other animal rights activists, have sought to end the hunt for years, showing up to protest at various locations. They say that bears can be controlled without a hunt, and that keeping them away from human food sources is the best way. Making less food available lowers their fertility rate, advocates say.

Angi Metler, executive director of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, said that she applauds the governor’s sentiments that the state’s next bear policy should reflect changes, but that he should issue an executive order to stop this year’s hunt.

“Our immediate need is next week,” Metler said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the governor’s announcement has sown confusion, with many believing that this year’s hunt would be stopped.

“The bear hunt starts next week no matter what the Murphy administration says. Instead of ending it, the administration is playing games, " Tittel said, adding, "Even though there is a lot of public outcry to end the hunt, the Murphy administration is still going forward with the hunt. They are putting out spin and PR.”

However, the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, which represents hunters, said it will fight the change, saying a ban will hurt hunters while increasing the bear population and, thus, encounters with humans.

“The crux of this whole thing is that the governor is being reckless here and we’re not going to let it stand,” said Cody McLaughlin, a spokesperson for the alliance.

McLaughlin said he believes that Murphy should be held liable for any future human-bear incidents.

Last year, 315 bears were killed in the two hunts, with half in Sussex and Warren Counties in the mountainous northwestern part of the state. And 409 were killed in 2017, before the partial ban.