Three months after a Rutgers University student was mauled to death by a bear, the state's final of five scheduled bear hunts is set for this week as state wildlife officials and activists disagree over whether the hunts are needed to control the bruin population or are an inhumane practice that doesn't address public safety.
While the overall numbers of bears in the state has decreased since the state instituted the hunt in 2010, some point to Darsh Patel's death as evidence that there is too much focus on killing the animals and not enough on educating the public about how to handle interactions with them.
"The fact that we had a person killed despite having a hunt shows it is not working," said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey.
Patel was hiking in the Apshawa Preserve with four friends when they noticed a 300-pound black bear following them. The group scattered, and Patel's friends, who were not injured, called police when they realized he was missing.
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Tittel said non-lethal methods such as aversion therapy to make bears afraid of people and teaching people how to bear-proof houses and yards are effective. He also stressed the need for warning signs: there were no signs notifying hikers that bears reside in the area of the Apshawa Preserve or lists of do's and don'ts about bear confrontations. Photos released by police show Patel took pictures of the bear with his cellphone before being attacked.
About 1,600 bears have been killed in the last four hunts, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. In 2010, there were 3,400 bears living north of Interstate 80, roughly in the upper one-eighth of the state, according to a state Fish and Game Council report that supported the resumption of the bear hunt, in part to ensure public safety. The DEP estimates there are about 2,500 bears in that area now.
Only 251 bears were killed last year, a nearly 60 percent drop from the 592 killed in 2010. Freezing rain and bad weather hampered hunters on the first day of the hunt.
Kelcey Burguess, principal biologist and leader of the Division of Fish and Wildlife's black bear project, said the DEP may recommend holding future hunts earlier in the fall to avoid potentially disruptive weather, and extending the length of the hunt.
"As a general rule we have slowed the population, but that doesn't mean we are done," he said. "We need to make sure we're managing the population on more of a statewide level. The hunt is effective, but it isn't effective as it could be."
The number of reports of aggressive bears has dropped, but with some caveats.
Reports of Category 1 bears, defined as bruins that are aggressive and a danger to humans or livestock, fell from 235 in 2010 to 129 in 2013. While home entries and attempted entries fell from 90 in 2010 to 33 last year, they have risen to 44 through late November. In addition, reports of bears killing livestock rose from 21 to 35 between 2012 and 2013.
That could bolster Burguess' contention that while the bear population is falling in the more heavily forested areas in western and northwestern New Jersey, bears may be proliferating in areas where hunting is prohibited or restricted, such as in some state parks or nature conservancies that border residential areas.
The Fish and Game Council report in 2010 concluded that efforts to educate people about bear-proofing their garbage systems had been effective, as inspections of 4,600 residential properties had found 98 percent in compliance with bear management guidelines. It noted, though, that "the expense of bear-resistant garbage cans and commercial containers has hampered their widespread use."
Bears have been seen in all 21 New Jersey counties, according to the DEP.
The hunts draw animal rights protesters, who have called for the state to ban allowing hunters from baiting bears.
Angi Metler, executive director of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, said at a statehouse rally Thursday that baiting is inhumane and counterproductive because it changes the animals' natural foraging patterns and attracts them to other human food supplies.
She and others at the rally called on lawmakers to support a bill that would ban baiting and require other "bear smart'' measures, such as bear-proof trash containers and bans on birdseed in areas populated by bears.