The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection announced Thursday that the next black bear hunting season would be postponed indefinitely as lawyers prepared documents for the latest judicial dispute over the hunt.
This information was released by email and uploaded on the agency’s website the day after a judge on the state’s appellate court ordered an emergency stay preventing the hunt from the beginning on Monday.
The agency declared, “The black bear hunt slated to begin on December 5, 2022, is suspended until further notice.” Hunters should visit the NJDEP Fish and Wildlife page frequently for developments as the appeal of the emergency authorization enabling the hunt is to be considered on an expedited timeline.
DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette and Governor Phil Murphy unexpectedly announced in November that New Jersey would have a six-day bear hunt to coincide with the state’s six-day shotgun deer season. The state Fish and Game Council subsequently approved this plan.
Though Murphy had been against hunting in the past, he now claims to share the biologists’ belief that the tremendous growth of the bear population has resulted in an increase in deadly contact between humans and bears.
Deer season will continue as usual, but even with a permit, hunters will not be able to take down any black bears. As of Thursday afternoon, when the hunt was officially called off, 5,440 of the state’s 11,000 permits had been sold.
After a lawsuit was filed by three anti-hunt groups on Wednesday, state appeal Judge Lisa Rose ordered a temporary halt on the hunt, which resulted in Thursday’s technical suspension.
The Animal Protection League, the Humane Society of the United States, and Friends of Animals all said the 11-person council made a mistake by declaring an emergency and setting a date for the bear season.
Rose has extended the deadline for the defendants to submit a written request to her and Appellate Division Chief Justice Carmen Messano until Friday at 4 p.m. Rose said the state DEP would have access to the papers by Monday at 4 p.m. and would have to file a response by the same time.
Rose has stated in her ruling that there will be no more opportunities for reply briefs. There was no date she specified for legal action. The state may decide to continue the hunt into the following week. When winter sets in, the number of nocturnal bears is expected to drop dramatically.
Since the Fish and Game Council, an independent panel consisting of six sportsmen members first allowed bear hunts in New Jersey at the beginning of this century, they have been met with opposition.
The state constitution grants the council the power to decide which fish and wildlife are legal to hunt or trap within state borders, but bear management policies still need to be approved by the state’s environmental protection commissioner.
Decisions are made after careful consideration of studies, reports, and suggestions made by biologists and other specialists at the DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. A lot of the time, the division will put out management plans and procedures for the council to follow.
However, in New Jersey, the hunt has turned into a political football, with Democratic governors often prohibiting any harvest and Republican governors typically allowing it. In turn, this has led to black bear management measures being either implemented or scrapped depending on whether or not the DEP commissioner, who is appointed by the governor, gives the go-ahead.
Murphy, a Democrat, ran for office in 2017 on a promise to end the hunt, but the season went on nevertheless due to an existing management policy. In 2019, Murphy imposed further limitations by outlawing the killing of bears on any grounds held by the state.
This includes state parks, state forests, and wildlife management zones. Without the DEP commissioner’s approval of a new black bear policy, no hunt could take place once the council adopted one in 2021.
However, since 2020, the number of black bear-human contacts has increased by more than 100%, prompting Phil Murphy to claim in late October that he had “negotiated” a bear hunt for this fall, albeit with some restrictions.
Killing bears under 75 pounds or cubs under a year old was prohibited, as was killing adult bears within 300 feet of cubs or bait heaps. Deer baiting is permitted, with certain regulations, and occurs concurrently with the conventional six-day shotgun deer season and the bear season.
An “emergency action” to schedule a hunt for 2022, with the extra criteria, was approved by the Fish and Game Council during its normal November meeting, which was moved to the State Museum in Trenton to accommodate a larger public audience.
The three animal rights organizations are contesting the legality of the procedure used to take this “emergency” measure. The Fish and Game Council also approved a revised seven-year Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy at the same meeting. If the court upholds the policy, the council will have the authority to schedule future hunts for the same time frame.