AR-News: New York Times: They Shoot Bears, Don't They?
KarenDawn at DawnWatch.com
Sun Oct 5 09:44:24 EDT 2003
(The New York Times takes letters at: letters at nytimes.com)
The New York Times
October 5, 2003, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Section 14NJ; Page 1; Column 3; New Jersey Weekly Desk
They Shoot Bears, Don't They?
By JEREMY PEARCE
THE black bear, once as uncommon a sight as a kangaroo in the suburbs, has
returned to flourish, captivate northern New Jersey and upset more than a
few political garbage bins.
Not since the invasion of the Canada goose or the white-tailed deer has a
species made so smashing a reappearance. A plan to prune the bear population
by allowing a state hunt was approved earlier this year, marking the first
such season in three decades and opening a brawl within the environmental
community that has yet to simmer down.
Governor McGreevey, who courted the animal-rights lobby during his election
campaign and pledged to protect the state's bears, has rethought his
position and endorsed the six-day hunt, intended to remove 500 bears in
December. Residents in Sussex and Passaic counties, who until recently were
armchair animal feeders, have suddenly become frightened settlers, just as
activists have emerged to defend the black bear's wider rebound.
But perhaps most significant, the issue has sharply divided biologists, who
disagree about the number of bears in New Jersey -- with estimates that
range from 1,350 to nearly 3,300 -- and are raising questions about the
accuracy of counts that put the population at 500 bears only a few years
ago. The largest figures were compiled by state biologists and imply an
explosive rate of reproduction that other scientists say is highly
"It's such a wide range that I find it disturbing," said Dr. Lynn L. Rogers,
a bear biologist and director of the Wildlife Research Institute in Ely,
Minn. "If the state's numbers are wrong, they could set things back many
years for the black bear's recovery in New Jersey."
Even the one constituency expected to thrill at the chase has expressed its
ambivalence. By the final deadline last week, the state's hunters had
applied for only 6,300 of 10,000 available bear permits, and state officials
said that about 20 percent of applications were being returned because of
confusion in filling out the forms.
Some outdoorsmen explained that stalking bears requires a specialized
knowledge that is distinct from the lore of the deer camp and duck blind.
After 33 years without a bear hunt, they said, there are fewer old-timers to
pass on that expertise.
"You are hunting an animal that has the potential to do some damage to
you -- that's the difference," said Thomas G. Mullane, a Sussex County
hunter who has pursued bears in Pennsylvania, Maine and Canada.
Referring to Sussex, which has been a flashpoint in the debate, Mr. Mullane
said: "We've been living in a bear factory up here. Something had to happen.
If you look at the amount of nuisance complaints the state has been
receiving, you understand that a hunt should have taken place a long time
Indeed, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife has presented statistics to
suggest a rapid increase in bear-related problems. For instance, the number
of bears breaking into homes nearly doubled in five years, from 29 annually
to 57 so far this year. Police and wildlife officials are euthanizing other
bears -- found to be repeatedly entering houses and tents or marauding
through livestock and beehives -- at a steeply increasing rate, from 4 bears
killed in 1999 to a total of 35 last year.
Finally, recent months have brought out the most controversial statistic --
accounts of two bears in New Jersey that reportedly attacked humans. While
neither incident resulted in serious injuries, they are cited, along with
the death of a child in New York State last year, as evidence of a growing
threat to public safety and an urgent justification for the state's hunt. No
other attacks on humans in New Jersey have been recorded in recent memory.
Number of Bears Questioned
W. Scott Ellis, chairman of the New Jersey Fish and Game Council, which
decided in July to permit the hunt, said that new census figures for the
species had startled members and led them to reconsider an open season.
Three years ago, Gov. Christie Whitman halted plans for a similar hunt at
the final hour after an uproar from opponents. In actuality, the council is
autonomous in deciding hunting seasons, although it is advised by the
wildlife division, which itself is an entity of the state Department of
"Had we had the hunt three years ago, we wouldn't have the problems we face
today," said Mr. Ellis, a corn and soybean farmer who also happens to be a
"The closer the biologists look at it, the higher the bear numbers seem to
get," he said. "We do need to recognize political pressures in designing a
bear season. But the public safety issue is also much more pronounced than
it was in 2000. Bears are not a problem until you have one of your own."
Yet before the council had announced its decision, Bradley M. Campbell, the
state's environmental commissioner, intervened, ordering a seven-member
panel of scientists and residents to take a second look at the bear census.
Mr. Campbell said he had hoped to reconcile what were "inherent
uncertainties" in counting the population.
As a result, the state invited a high-level group to sit around one table --
a leading animal activist, state bear experts from New York and Maryland, a
zoologist from Tufts University, a member of the state Fish and Game
Council, another representative for the state as well as Dr. Rogers, the
biologist from Minnesota and a bear hunter himself.
After a single meeting, the panel released a remarkable report. In essence,
its members decided to agree to disagree, and listed comments both in
support of the hunt and against it. Dr. Rogers criticized New Jersey's
census for "unsupported claims and exaggerated reproductive rates" and state
bear researchers' use of "misquotes" from other other scientific works.
In his critique, Dr. Rogers went on to say that natural deaths among the
state's bears had probably been undercounted, further skewing the population
figure upward. He concluded that the best course for the state would be to
continue field studies of the animals, and to promote a broader
understanding of bear behavior among residents.
Another panelist, Dr. Allen Rutberg of the Tufts University School of
Veterinary Medicine, said he shared Dr. Rogers's concerns about the bear
estimates and whether the hunt would markedly reduce complaints from fearful
"We know that many of the problem bears are active in communities that are
not huntable," said Dr. Rutberg, a zoologist who is also a consultant to the
Humane Society of the United States, a national animal-rights group that
opposes the bear hunt.
He added: "Then you factor in that the state is making assumptions about
bear numbers and bear movements that some of us are not comfortable with.
Small changes in those assumptions would result in large changes to
estimates of bear numbers."
Other members of the panel praised New Jersey's census and said the studies
showed that the state was ready for a regular bear season that could be
sustained indefinitely. Louis T. Berchielli, a bear biologist with the New
York Department of Environmental Conservation, said it would be possible to
kill as much as 25 percent of the population each year and still retain
plentiful numbers. About 900 of New York's 5,000 to 6,000 bears were bagged
during its hunting season last year; New Jersey's target this year of 500
bears would amount to about 15 percent of its population, according to the
official estimate of about 3,300. Only a year ago, the official estimate
stood at 1,900 bears.
"I was extremely impressed with the amount of work that New Jersey put into
collecting its bear data," said Mr. Berchielli. "And the evidence needed for
a hunt is pretty clear."
Bear Population Put at 3,000
Harry A. Spiker Jr., a bear biologist with the Maryland Department of
Natural Resources, acknowledged the difficulty in counting bears, but said
he was satisfied that New Jersey's population had probably reached 3,000,
and warranted a hunt. Finally, George P. Howard, a panelist and member of
the state's game council, also sided with the notion of a hunt.
"The animal-rights people keep harping on the numbers," said Mr. Howard, who
is also a former director of the state's wildlife division. "That's kind of
ridiculous. The concern shouldn't be about killing too many bears -- the
concern is about killing too few bears."
Mr. Howard said the council's decision to grant 10,000 permits to hunters
was based on the premise of a 5 percent success rate, which would amount to
the killing of 500 bears. State regulations stipulate that bears of any age
and either sex can be shot during a season -- scheduled for Dec. 8 to 13,
intended to run at the same time as New Jersey's firearms season for deer.
The dates are based on an assumption that the winter will be reasonably
warm, and the majority of bears will be roaming and not underground, in
Lynda Smith, an activist who was placed on the state's bear panel, said she
opposed the hunt and suspected that the state's Fish and Game Council had
made a tacit decision to allow it even before the panel published its
"The hunt was a foregone conclusion," said Ms. Smith, director of the Bear
Education and Resource Group, which has led a statewide campaign to tutor
residents in ways to deter the animals from home sites. Last month, the
group also picketed in anti-hunt protests held in front of Drumthwacket, Mr.
McGreevey's official residence in Princeton.
"We do have a problem," she continued. "The problem is that the Fish and
Game Council is accountable to no one -- not to the voters, not to the
governor and not to the Department of Environmental Protection."
A measure of the state's own ambivalence was revealed when the environmental
commissioner, Mr. Campbell, wrote to the game council in March, shortly
before the initial vote to consider a bear hunt. In his letter, Mr. Campbell
recorded a surge in animal complaints, but questioned the accuracy of state
census numbers and emphasized the bear panel's lack of agreement.
"I was especially concerned about this because the Division of Fish and
Wildlife's internal projection of the current population has increased by
more than 70 percent over the past several months,"" wrote the commissioner,
who describes himself as an "occasional hunter," although not of bears. "In
light of these considerations, I urge the council to exercise caution in the
use of current data to support a bear hunt."
More recently, Mr. Campbell has softened somewhat. While falling short of an
outright endorsement of the hunt, he said that he believed bear numbers
likely stood "at the higher end of the range, but I am reserving judgment."
He considered for a moment, then said: "No matter how many animals are taken
in the hunt, we will continue to have bear-management problems in New
Jersey. The hunt is certainly not a cure-all."
McGreevey's Shift Angers Some
The politics of bears has proven at least as sticky as the arithmetic. Micah
Rasmussen, a spokesman for Mr. McGreevey, said the governor's change of
heart came reluctantly, after a realization that bear numbers had tipped
toward becoming a threat to public safety. In 2000, while still mayor of
Woodbridge, Mr. McGreevey openly opposed plans to permit a hunt.
"The governor has serious personal concerns about a hunt," said Mr.
Rasmussen."He wishes there was some alternative way to control the
population. But ignoring the bear problem is no longer an option."
News of Mr. McGreevey's reversal infuriated animal-rights groups, who said
the change flew in the face of explicit campaign promises to protect bears
made to Humane USA, a national political action committee. As a result,
Wayne Pacelle, the chairman of the committee, said his group would no longer
support a McGreevey candidacy.
"Anybody interested in animals is going to know that Jim McGreevey failed to
stop this hunt," said Mr. Pacelle, who is also a senior vice president of
the Humane Society. "People need to understand that this is not a long-term
strategy for handling bear-human relations."
In fairness, it is not clear just what else Mr. McGreevey could do. Last
year, the governor helped speed into law a bill making the feeding of bears
by residents illegal. The new law is intended to break the chain of
familiarity with the animals that too often ends in nuisance complaints
about raided garbage cans and, ultimately, euthanasia.
Efforts to trap and relocate animals out of state have withered because no
other state wants them. Others have placed hopes in developing chemical
castration or a contraceptive -- a vaccine that would prevent female bears
from conceiving -- but even its most ardent backers admit such solutions
are, at best, years in the future.
"There have been a couple of captive studies of contraceptives on black
bears, but no studies of bears in the field," said Dr. Rutberg, who is
researching the project for the Humane Society. "All of them are
encouraging, but none is definitive."
On the political front, Mr. Howard reiterated that neither the governor nor
the environmental commissioner has the power to overturn the game council's
decisions. Further, two bills in the state Legislature that would ban
hunting bears for five years have yet to see the light of day. Even the
sponsors of those bills are beginning to waver.
'People Come First'
"I am a realist," said state Senator Joseph F. Vitale, a Democrat of
Woodbridge, who is a primary sponsor of a Senate bill for a ban. "People
come first. A limited hunt may make sense."
Assemblyman Christopher Bateman, a Republican from Somerville, is sponsoring
the companion bill for a ban. Mr. Bateman declined to comment, but conceded
in an interview last year that the state "may need to have a limited bear
hunt down the road."
For his part, Mr. Campbell insists that he holds the authority to end New
Jersey's hunt prematurely, if he determines that the numbers of bears killed
has been excessive. Yet any interruption could not take effect until the
beginning of the hunt's third day, according to the game council's
regulations. Therefore, said Mr. Campbell, the last chance to pre-empt the
bear hunt almost certainly remains in the courts.
Following that strategy, a coalition of animal-rights groups two weeks ago
launched a lawsuit against the game council, the state wildlife division and
the Department of Environmental Protection, claiming that the bear hunt is
not justified by the population census. No timetable has yet been set for
hearing the suit, which was filed in the Appellate Division of state
Superior Court in Trenton.
"We're exploring every avenue to get the hunt stopped," said Ms. Smith,
whose activist organization joined the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance in
filing the complaint. "The cruelty of this is sickening,**.
Applying other pressures, opponents of the hunt have potentially struck
another blow. They have induced six towns within Newark's rural Pequannock
watershed area to deliberate about allowing bear hunters access to 35,000
acres termed by one state wildlife official to be "the epicenter of bear
problems in New Jersey."
Zinnerford Smith, executive director of the Newark Watershed Conservation
and Development Corporation, which manages the land, said that he had sought
opinions from local officials in West Milford, Vernon, Rockaway, Kinnelon,
Jefferson and Hardyston while preparing to make a decision. The state's hunt
would be limited to lands north of Route 78 and west of Route 287 --
essentially to the counties of Sussex, Passaic, Morris, Hunterdon and
Warren. Jefferson Township, in Morris County, has already voted to permit
the hunt. In May, in neighboring West Milford, a man was slightly injured
when he tackled a bear reportedly engaged in a fight with his dog.
"You have to weigh in on citizen concerns," declared Mr. Smith. "We're
either going to allow hunting on all the land or not at all. We're not going
to complicate the issue."
Regardless, as residents, scientists and politicians argue and collide, some
see room for still further distinctions. Robert McDowell, who was director
of the state wildlife division during the hunt furor in 2000, said the bear
problem also boils down to dollars and cents. Instead of paying for bear
control, public education and crop damages, said Mr. McDowell, the hunt
should be viewed as a means of revenue.
"All the uses of wildlife are an asset to the economy of the state," he
said. "People forget that. I don't know of any other place in this country
where the density of bears per square mile is this high or the density of
people is this high."
But to sidestep an issue they sensed might inflame public sentiments
further, the game council decided not to levy a special permit fee for
hunting bears -- unlike additional fees required to hunt ducks, geese, quail
and pheasants. As with deer hunters, resident adults who wish to pursue bear
will pay a $27.50 license fee. Under the law, hunters are allowed to carry
shotguns with slugs or muzzleloading rifles, but not bows -- for the time
being, deemed too likely to wound and not kill cleanly. Seminars to school
would-be bear hunters are required, and scheduled to begin next month.
Arguably, the recasting of bears as a game animal is a kinder fate than
nuisance status, in which townships might choose to hire sharpshooters as a
Carmen Aliberti, a retired electrician from Richwood, in Gloucester County,
already has his hunting license and has applied for a free permit to shoot
Mr. Aliberti, who used to hunt black bears in Pennsylvania and Maine, said
that he would drive to Sussex County and begin scouting his quarry. He
likened the flavor of bear to "stringy steak, a tasty meat," and said that
he would make use of most parts of the animal, not just the trophy pelt, as
alleged by many hunt opponents.
"It's exciting to be part of the first season," he said. "I feel if I can
find the proper signs, I'll have a good chance."
GRAPHIC: Photos: Carmen Aliberti of Richwood, inset, has applied for a
permit to hunt bears. In December, he may meet up with the bear who was
foraging recently in Highland Lakes near Wawayanda State Park. A plan to
prune the bear population by allowing a state hunt was approved earlier this
year. (Photographs by Nancy Wegard for The New York Times)(pg. 1);
Biologists, top, tranquilize a bear, draw blood and check for diseases.
About 6,300 people have applied for permits, above, to hunt for bear in
December. But other groups like the Bear Education and Resource Group and
the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance want to educate the public on
coexisting with the animals. (Photographs by Nancy Wegard for The New York
Map of New Jersey highlighting area of bear hunt. (pg. 10)
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