The black bears of New Jersey can run, but they can't hide, from the onslaught of hunters who will soon seek them as their prized quarry.
The New Jersey Fish and Game Council voted unanimously during a meeting Tuesday to reinstate the state's annual bear hunt, citing a significant increase in bear sightings around the state. But animal conservationists are criticizing the decision, stating that it won't lead to a decrease in human and bear interactions.
Bear populations have been increasing in New Jersey over the past several decades, Patrick Carr, a retired wildlife biologist for New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife, said in an interview with WNYCin 2011.
There are currently 3,000 black bears in Morris, Passaic, Sussex and Warren counties alone, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Wildlife officials in the state expect the bear population to grow to more than 4,000 in the next two years, Gov. Phil Murphy told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday.
The decision to reverse the ban on bear hunts is not only "disappointing and cruel" but also "bad public policy," Elissa Frank, New Jersey state director for the Humane Society of the United States, told ABC News.
"It will lead to unsustainable slaughter to our beloved New Jersey bears," Frank said.
Trophy hunting, even with the aim to reduce the state's black bear population by 20%, will do little to reduce conflicts between humans and black bears, Frank said. In addition, killing adult bears leaves orphaned cubs to die of starvation and prompts a spike in survivor breeding, PETA spokesperson Catie Cryar told ABC News over email.
"This planned slaughter is both cruel and phenomenally short-sighted."
Hunters will be permitted to go into the woods, but killing the bears in the wild will not stop the animals from coming near humans in search of food in garbage, outdoor grills that have not been cleaned and even homes, Frank said.
"Instead of launching a war on wildlife, the Garden State needs to clean up its garbage," Cryar said. "If restaurants and residents were required to bear-proof trash bins and dumpsters, hungry bears who are simply trying to eke out an existence wouldn’t be drawn into residential areas in the first place."
More criticism came during the council meeting on Tuesday, which allowed public comment prior to the vote.
"I live in bear country, and I haven't seen a bear in two years," New Jersey resident Debra Herrington told the council. "And I'm out frequently."
Former New Jersey State Sen. Ray Lesniak said the decision to resume bear hunts should be reconsidered for more effective measures, WABC reported.
Frank suggested a "bear aware" program, similar to what has been instated in Colorado, in which the state wildlife agency administers grants to help communities deal with human and bear conflicts.
The move came more than four years after New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy reversed a ban on bear hunting that he enforced months after taking office in 2018, after running on a campaign promise that the bear hunts would not exist while he was in office.
"While I committed to ending the bear hunt, the data demands that we act now to prevent tragic bear and human interactions," Murphy told reporters during a news conference on Tuesday.
Animal conservationists expressed disappointment in Murphy going back on his promise.
"This is extremely disappointing," Anjuli Ramos-Busot, New Jersey director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.
The hunt has been approved as part of an emergency rule that states there is imminent peril to humans.
"There's actually no emergency," Frank said, accusing the state of using "highly inflated numbers" to suggest that there is.
Angi Metler, cofounder of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, echoed that sentiment during Tuesday's council meeting, adding that the Imminent Emergency Rule is a "new political tactic" used by the wildlife agency "to circumvent public opposition, comment and input."
Black bear attacks on humans are rare, but often begin as scuffles with dogs, experts told ABC News in 2019. Black bears, which are typically timid and not aggressive, would likely flee before engaging in an attack -- typically up the nearest tree.
Incidents reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection from January through October of this year have increased by 237% compared to the same period in 2021, Murphy's office said in a press release on Nov. 10, which announced reinstating the hunt as a possible way to curb those interactions. There were 62 aggressive encounters with humans, one attack on a human, 12 attacks on dogs, 12 home entries, 15 attempted home entries, 84 instances of property damage exceeding $1,000 and 52 attacks on protected livestock, the release stated.
Frank refuted those claims, stating that between January and October 2022, bear attacks on humans increased by one, bear attacks on dogs increased by five, and vehicle injuries involving bear strikes increased by four, compared to the same window of time in 2021, citing state wildlife data.
When asked for a response to the Humane Society's allegations by ABC News, a representative for Murphy pointed to the Nov. 10 press release.
This year's bear hunt will coincide with the annual six-day shotgun season from Dec. 5 to Dec. 10. Additional hunting will be permitted rom Dec. 14 to Dec. 17 if the goal to reduce the bear population by 20% is not met during the first hunt.
One hunting enthusiast wasted no time in killing black bears after it was announced that it could soon be legal again.
On Monday, the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Conservation received reports of three dead bears along the edge of Ringwood State Park, spotted by a hiker. Once conservation officers arrived on the scene, they found a fourth dead bear -- all cubs that had been shot and killed, ABC New York station WABC reported.
The 22-year-old suspect in the shooting has been issued summons for hunting with a firearm without a license, hunting with an illegal weapon and ammunition, and hunting a bear during a closed season.