New Jersey the first black bear hunt in two years occurred Wednesday morning as Sussex County reported its first kill of the season and anti-hunting protesters kept their distance.
A day after a state court lifted an emergency shutdown that delayed the harvest, hunters headed into the woods of northwest New Jersey, a designated area where state officials say the number of bear-human encounters is reaching dangerous levels. But unlike the noisy scenes at previous hunts, there were not enough protesters, who call the harvest cruel and unnecessary. No one was present at the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area in Newton, where opponents have gathered in previous years near the station where state wildlife officers weigh dead bears. Instead, anti-hunting groups said they plan to post signs and banners in more populated areas throughout the rest of the state.
The state Department of Environmental Protection wasted no time Tuesday after a court lifted a halt to the hunt, which was originally scheduled to begin Monday morning. The agency declared open season a few hours after the ruling and DEP website said the first bear kill was reported in Sussex County on Tuesday evening.
Terry Mowery of West Milford, Pa., came out of the woods Wednesday morning at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Walpack.
Mowery has been an avid bear hunter “since I was 12 years old. I’m 54 now.” Mowery explained that he hunts in Pennsylvania, where bear hunting has been a tradition for many years, and now hunts both deer and bear during the New Jersey season.
When asked what he would do with the bear if he shot it, Mowery said, “eat it.”
“When cooked right, it tastes like roast beef, maybe sweeter.” He said.
Unlike other previous bear hunts, Wednesday was remarkably quiet at the Whittingham Weigh Station in Fredon Township.
Additional police staff sat in their cars to one side; conservation officers withdrew from the wildlife management area to proceed with enforcement; and bear biologists and their team, usually busy inspecting and weighing bears brought in by hunters, sat at a table in a nearby building with pots of chili.
The first bear didn’t arrive at Whittingham Station until after 1pm, an hour after the site opened. The hunter, who declined to give his name or hometown, shot and killed the animal in West Milford earlier in the day. He was overheard telling state Fish and Wildlife officials that he dragged it about a quarter of a mile after calling a friend to come help.
Breen was a male with a dressed weight of 250 pounds. State wildlife officials took a sample of the tooth that will be used to determine its age.
Dave Golden, assistant commissioner of the DEP, told reporters at the Newton station that officials were disappointed to miss a day and a half of the originally planned season, and that rainy weather could stop the harvest on the first day. But he expected the hunt to achieve its goal of reducing the bear population.
Just off Green Pond Road in Morris County, two camouflaged hunters waited outside another check-in area with a bear carcass under a tarp. Trucks were coming and going at the Rockaway Township station early Wednesday afternoon. But government officials have closed the site to the media and the general public.
Bear needs:Here’s what hunters need to know about the return of New Jersey’s December bear hunt
The hunt was reinstated this year after Gov. Phil Murphy dramatically reversed his previous opposition and said he was won over by reports of a sharp increase in bear-human conflicts, which the state says have caused more than three times for the first 10 months of 2022 compared to last year.
The hunt is in an area roughly defined as west of Interstate 287 and north of Interstate 78, including all or part of Sussex, Warren, Morris, Hunterdon, Passaic and Bergen counties.
The 2022 hunt was scheduled for this week — Monday through Saturday — before it was terminated by the appellate court, which considered the petition for permanent stay.
On Tuesday, Doris Lynn, a member of the legal team for those seeking to end the hunt, said the group is deciding whether to go to the state Supreme Court for a final appeal and whether to try to end the hunt if that appeal is heard.
The lawsuit was filed by the Animal Welfare League of New Jersey, the Humane Society of the United States, animal lovers and private individuals Angela Mettler and Doreen Prega. At the end of last week, they appealed to the appellate authority with a request for a permanent stay.
The groups formally appealed the emergency action taken by the Fish and Game Board to begin this year’s bear hunt, based on a new black bear management policy that was also approved at the same board meeting in early November.