The Canceled N.J. Bear Hunt

Unfortunately for hunters, politics got in the way of science

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Except for the pitter-patter of a light rain, the bear hunting woods of New Jersey were silent this week, the result of a long battle that saw politics trump science. On what should have marked the opening day of the state's second annual black bear season after a 33 year hiatus, hunters were instead licking their wounds from a surprise Supreme court decision late last week. And for once it's the bureaucrats, namely DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell, that are perceived as villains instead of the hunters.

Mr. Campbell and others within the old McGreevey administration, who favored the hunt last year, buckled to the political pressure of vocal, though small, anti-hunting groups. He apparently forgot that much of the revenue for the Department of Environmental Protection comes from hunting license sales. None comes from anti-hunting organizations.

Wildlife is considered a public trust-according to past court rulings-with the state as the trustee. Not surprisingly, New Jersey is showing signs of schizophrenia. The Fish and Game Council approved the hunt 10-1. Then Mr. Campbell threw out nearly 3,000 permit applications for the bear season. Sportsmen took the case to the appellate court and the hunt was reinstated. Later Mr. Campbell closed public lands for bear hunting, and had the season canceled through a victory in the Supreme Court.

At question in the court cases was whether the commissioner had the authority to override a decision made by the Fish and Game Council. State attorneys argued that the council's vote on the hunt conflicted with Mr. Campbell's approach to managing wildlife. Fair enough, but a glaring flaw is that Mr. Campbell's management plan for bears is an outdated policy paper from 1997.

New Jersey is a member of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, whose participants agree to follow the seven principles of the North American Wildlife Conservation Model. One of those is that wildlife allocation be based on sound science. Throughout the fiasco Mr. Campbell has reiterated that his decision would be based on science, but it seems he ignored most of the empirical evidence available.

First are non-lethal methods, favored by the Commissioner, which haven't worked so far in controlling whitetail deer numbers. Many wildlife managers agree that non-lethal treatments such as birth control are ineffective. Second, 300 cubs are expected to be born this year. The herd is growing exponentially and will require several approaches to keep it managed. Third, state wildlife biologists deemed a second hunt "necessary" as a check on the population. Even more telling are the stats. Since last year's hunt, the number of dangerous bear-human encounters is down 40 percent. From 1995 to 2000 bear nuisance complaints rose from 375 to 1,375. Having hunters in the woods was a successful deterrent.

This time, science was on the side of the hunt, unfortunately the politics weren't.