The New Jersey Fish and Game Council has announced plans to reinstate the bear hunt starting in December. But a bear hunt will not solve the problem of nuisance bears and only ignores the real issue: that New Jersey must have a real bear management program that focuses on education and non-lethal alternatives to hunting.
New Jersey has significantly cut back funds for bear management, including eliminating the bear warden program as well as scaling back money for officers providing education programs and bear aversion therapy, and other non-lethal methods of management.
By cutting these funds, the state has eliminated the possibility of any type of effective bear management program. Now, they'd like to have a hunt, which is not a bear management policy and won't resolve the issue of nuisance bears.
The type of hunt that is being proposed by the Fish and Game Council is not a management hunt, it's a recreational hunt. Nuisance bears living under decks or behind sheds will not be affected by this hunt, since it will be focused in woodlands and areas such as Pequannock Watershed.
This hunt will kill docile bears in the middle of the forest. Those aren't the bears the state should be worried about. It is the nuisance bears living under decks and next to houses that will remain despite the hunt. Those nuisance bears are the ones we should be concerned about.
The Sierra Club supports an effective bear management plan that combines non-lethal methods of dealing with bears, public education, and steps that properly handle garbage.
The first step to implementing an effective bear management plan is education. More than half a million New Jerseyans live in bear country, but many do not have the expertise or experience to understand bears and or avoid confrontations with them. At the most basic level, people need to be taught that bears are wild animals and should be treated with respect and from a distance. People must be educated that feeding bears as they would pets is dangerous and will lead to aggressive behavior in the future.
We must utilize non-lethal methods of dealing with conflicts between bears and humans. Bear aversion therapy, which trains bears to be afraid of humans and to avoid them, is an important program that helps to address the issue of bear and human conflicts. Unfortunately, the state has cut funding for bear aversion therapy. The state should have conservation officers and bear wardens to address bear complaints and educate the public about bears, but funding for that important program has also been cut.
Hunt or no hunt, New Jersey must deal with garbage or we'll continue to create nuisance bears. Without a concerted effort to codify and enforce requirements on garbage, other bear policies will fail. The state needs to mandate bear-proof containers and locking dumpsters in bear country and ban the practice of leaving garbage out overnight. Bears like garbage and consider it a source of food. If an abundant supply of trash is readily available, the bear population will increase and bears will become more aggressive as they learn that houses are good places to find food.
We also must bear proof public areas. The state should work with towns and municipalities to put up fencing and take other steps to keep bears out of key areas, such as playgrounds. Bear proofing farms is essential, too. The state must cooperate with the agricultural sector to provide small grants to farmers that allow them to bear-proof their properties and protect them from potential damage.
Protecting our habitat is another important step towards managing our bear population. Each year, New Jersey loses 8,000 to 10,000 acres of land in bear country. The more we build houses in the middle of the woods where bears live, the more conflict we will see between bears and humans.
Killing bears that live in our cherished woods and wild places is not the answer to addressing the problem of nuisance bear in our neighborhoods.
The black bear is a symbol that we still have wild places in New Jersey and the whole state has not been paved over with subdivisions and strip malls. Reinstating a hunt just because it may be hard to sell condos in Vernon to people from Brooklyn if there are bears in the area makes little sense and will only make the problem worse.
As New Jersey continues to suburbanize and more people move into bear country, we should be managing bears and protecting habitat instead of getting rid of them. Instead of the hunt, we should implement a comprehensive bear management program that focuses on education and non-lethal methods. It is a bear management program, not a hunt, that will solve the problem of nuisance bears in New Jersey.
Jeff Tittel is the Director of the Sierra Club, New Jersey Chapter.