SHARE

THE NEW JERSEY bear hunt was expected to be protested and reviled. It was framed by anti-hunting groups as a bloodbath waiting to happen and the worst kind of trophy hunt. But when it was finally underway, the New Jersey bear season, which is the first the state has hosted since 2020, turned out to be a quiet little hunt in which a few thousand licensed hunters killed 93 black bears in an area that’s known to have one of the densest bear populations in America.

So far, 6,268 bear permits have been issued. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection estimates there are more than 3,000 black bears in the state, of which 184 have been captured, tagged, and released by wildlife officials. The DEP hopes hunters harvest 20 percent of these tagged bruins. The harvest rate is currently just 6 percent, however, and the state reopens bear hunting Wednesday to give bear hunters another four days to tag a bruin. New Jersey hunters cannot use hounds to chase bears and they cannot hunt over bait. Most hunters wait for bears from tree stands or blinds, still-hunt through the woods, or run small bear drives in the timber.

A bear hunter sits in a treestand in New Jersey.
Eddie Mackin, 33, hunts from a tree stand in Jefferson Township. Mackin is a lifelong hunter who killed his first bear in 2005 and has hunted them in New Jersey or surrounding states every year since. Bryan Anselm / Redux
A Remington 1100 in 20 gauge.
The 20-gauge Remington 1100 Mackin uses to hunt bears. Bryan Anselm / Redux
A bear hunter checks his trail camera.
Mackin runs half a dozen trail cameras to keep tabs on deer and bear movement. Bryan Anselm / Redux

Even though the hunt was initially delayed because of a lawsuit filed by anti-hunting groups, the protests at check stations and general outrage seen in previous bear seasons have been mostly absent this year.

“It seems like most of the battle was in the court,” says Adam Paladini, the New Jersey Backcountry Hunters and Anglers chapter chair. “Maybe the anti-hunting groups weren’t able to mobilize. Or maybe the impartial public has just gotten used to the idea of the bear hunt by now.”

Paladini lives in northwest New Jersey, the core area for the state’s bears and bear hunting. The region is a mix of wooded neighborhoods, subdivisions, farmland, and forested foothills. It’s less than 50 miles from New York City. The residents here live alongside a thriving bear population.

A 200-plus-pound sow black bear taken in New Jersey.
On the second day of the state’s black bear season, Mackin planned a small three-man bear drive with his buddy and his brother. But instead of pushing bears toward them, he bumped into this sow while scrambling up a cliff on all fours. The bear dressed out at 197 pounds—a healthy adult—although Macklin has killed black bears up to 350 pounds. “I’m not biased by any means on size. A bear is a bear, and it’s a management hunt. You’re not there to pick out which one you want. Sometimes you can, but for the most part—especially in a Segment B hunt—half of them are going to disappear, they’re going to start hibernating. … If I get an opportunity at a black bear in December and I’m permitted to shoot it, I’m shooting it.” Bryan Anselm / Redux
New Jersey hunters haul out a black bear.
Mackin (left) and buddy Alex Riley haul Mackin’s sow out of the woods. The bear had tumbled off a ridge and into a deep ravine, making for an extremely difficult drag out. Bryan Anselm / Redux
Photos From the New Jersey Bear Season, the Highly Controversial Hunt That Wasn’t
Although Mackin shot the bear around 11 a.m., he didn’t emerge from the woods until 6 p.m. due to the rough terrain. Riley and Mackin’s brother both ended up shooting bears later in the week. Bryan Anselm / Redux

Paladini has had his shed doors ripped open by a bruin in search of garbage. He and his neighbors are constantly capturing bears on their home security cameras. The New Jersey Fish and Game Council said in November that residents were in “imminent peril,” and they reported a 237 percent increase in bear complaints over the last year. 

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who is responsible for ending bear hunting in the state, changed his position and endorsed the 2022 season, framing it as an issue of public safety.

“From the data we have analyzed to the stories we have heard from families across the state, it is clear that New Jersey’s black bear population is growing significantly, and nonlethal bear management strategies alone are not enough to mitigate this trend,” Murphy said in a statement. “Every New Jerseyan deserves to live in communities in which their children, families, and property are protected from harm, and while I committed to ending the bear hunt, the data demands that we act now to prevent tragic bear-human interactions.”

True black bear attacks in this region are extremely rare, but they are not unheard of. In 2014 a Rutgers University student hiking in the northern part of the state was killed by a bear. In October, a 10-year-old boy was mauled by a black bear in Connecticut while playing in his grandparents’ backyard.

“We were very happily surprised when the governor changed his mind,” says Wade Stein, the president of New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, which represents 150,000 members.

Stein and Paladini are both looking forward to a hearing set for Jan. 18 in which the public will be able to comment on a proposed 2023 bear hunt. They’re hoping that hunters show up and that this once-controversial hunt becomes not so controversial after all.

NJDEP workers collect biological samples from a New Jersey black bear.
New Jersey DEP employees inspect Mackin’s bear at a state-run weigh-in station in the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area. Bryan Anselm / Redux
Biologists take a sample of a bear's tooth.
At the check-in station, DEP workers extract the pre-molar tooth. Once it’s cross-sectioned and stained, rings, called annuli, become visible and can be counted like tree rings to determine the bear’s age. Tissue samples are also collected, and the sow’s udders were measured. Bryan Anselm / Redux
A black bear being
A DEP employee takes a sample from a black bear last week. The boar that arrived at the weigh-in station after Mackin’s had an identification number tattooed inside its upper lip, indicating it had been caught and released by the state in 2014.
A black bear ready for butchering.
A skinned black bear ready for butchering at Game Butchers in Lebanon, New Jersey, on Monday. The hide will be transported for tanning, but the meat is processed on site. Bryan Anselm / Redux
Game processors break down a black bear.
On Monday evening, Game Butchers had eight black bears to process. The four employees can break down a whole black bear in less than 30 minutes. Bryan Anselm / Redux
Black bear cuts at a butcher shop in New Jersey.
Black bear cuts ready for packaging. In addition to meat, the butchers will return bear fat to customers who request it. Bryan Anselm / Redux

Natalie Krebs contributed reporting. Read more OL+ stories.

MORE TO READ