Tomorrow marks the beginning of the 2012 New Jersey Bear Hunt, an event that will occur for the third year in a row as part of The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s five year population control plan. For the past decade, black bears caused apparent, isolated incidents which have led residents of Northern New Jersey towns to feel threatened. Due to the upsurge in bear sightings in residential areas, the hunt has been a popular choice for population control by northern New Jersey residents, but the hunt has also not been met without controversy from protest groups.
The history of the black bear in New Jersey is quite an old one. Around the turn of the 1900s, there were little to no hunting regulations, such as how many bears could be hunted by a single person or per year. By 1971, black bears had been so overhunted that they were close to being depleted entirely. In fact, less than a hundred bears were living in the state, and so a hunting ban was placed. Over time, black bears began to replenish, and by 2010, the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife documented around 3,200 bears, an extremely healthy number considering the population growth of residents in northern New Jersey. A documented 3,025 calls were placed by residents in 2010 to the Division of Fish and Wildlife in order to place a complaint or threat of a black bear in their area.
Of course, lack of space between 3,200 bears and newly developed residential areas leads to a struggle for food. Food, for a bear, is the most important aspect of their day to day living. They are commonly thought of as omnivores with a penchant for meat, but throughout the year, they mostly sway towards a plant based diet. In the wild, black bears eat lush vegetation, such as leafy forbs, tubers, bulbs and plants along the ground, berries, hickory nuts and beechnuts and acorns, various seeds, insects and larvae from their nests, blueberries, raspberries and cherries, and, occasionally, carrion, fish or the carcass of a found white-tailed doe. In order for their bodies to maintain through the winter as they sleep, they may consume up to 20,000 calories a day in the autumn, gaining thirty to forty percent of their spring-time weight and storing that fat for their hibernation. A mother stays with its cubs for a year and a half, teaching it out how eat, the best ways to find food, and how to climb trees to find limitless leaves to fill up its stomach. From the moment a black bear wakes in the spring, it is wired to consume and eat under any and all circumstances.
Garbage is an easy, desirable food source for black bears. A normal sized can of garbage fulfill enough calories in a day for a bear, and the kinds of foods typically found in a garbage are fatty, filling and quick satisfaction for an ailing bear competing with other bears for food. Black bears are also easily conditioned. Once they figure out a constant food source, they are likely to return. They can also easily open typical garbage cans, dumpsters, and knock down bird seed feeders. A bear-resistant garbage can was designed, one which can only be opened or closed by twisting the top like a screw. The cost of a bear-resistant can ranges from $100-$500 dollars. The cost discourages many residents from buying the can, and the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife offers no program to make the garbage cans affordable.
The term “nuisance bear” refers to a bear that repeatedly causes trouble by returning to residential areas, usually in search of food. These situations make bears sneakier, desperate to assure themselves enough to eat by winter. The NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife uses category levels to gauge the amount of offenses a bear commits, depending on how many complaint calls the Division receives.
A category three bear is one which the Division finds to exhibit normal bear behaviors, and is dispersed accordingly in the forest. A category two bear is seen as not a threat to life and property, although it has returned in search of food, and is treated with averse conditioning. Averse conditioning is an attempt to teach the returning bear, through negative stimuli, that the area is not a safe food source. However, experts have seen that averse conditioning does not entirely dissuade bears, but only make them sneakier to get what they want. A category one bear, a bear that has returned time and again to the same spots and has stirred many complaints, is considered a threat to life and property, and is euthanized.
Quite a lot of misconceptions are placed not only on the fact that black bears are on the constant hunt for meat, but that they will eat any meat source they can find. When bears are approached by humans, or find themselves in the company of humans, they become stoic. They are curious, but shy, and loud noises easily scare them away. A lot of the sounds they create, and their body language, can be very easily misinterpreted. Most aggressive noises they make are not aggressive, but of nervousness and fear. When they stand on their hind legs, they are attempting to get a better look at whats nearby, not to be predatory. Black bears would rather be away from you, as they perceive you to be a threat to their own individual actions, and so would rather be anywhere else. Activists, such as the B.E.A.R. Group , feel that these easy misunderstandings between bears and people are what perpetuate a cycle of fear against black bears. They see the solution to the bear population through education of how to deal with bear issues.
However the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has given very little focus on the concept of teaching the affected NJ communities about Bear Smart safety tips. Towns across the US who have bear problems have started Bear Smart groups to help residents learn how to co-exist with bears. The lack of emphasis the group plays on these Bear Smart groups, and no way to help residents obtain bear-safe garbage cans, has put a spotlight on the now yearly hunt. While hunting registrations bring in money for the state, the Division is also boasting that the the hunt of the past two years has brought bear populations down to around 2,800. But how sustainable are hunts in the long run? The only sure way to protect actual residents from the presence of black bears is to promote education of how black bears behave and interact with humans.
The hunt itself is also one that is on the term of humans. Although some hunters who register, in their six days of hunting, never even come across a wild bear, some hunters do by using such tactics as baiting. Baiting is a way of luring bears to exact spots by using attractive fatty items such as meats, garbage, donuts and other snacks. It is an unfair means to kill an animal that can be easily managed through other outlets, such as education. Not to mention deliberately feeding black bears in New Jersey is illegal, so why do hunters think they are an exception?
You can consult the B.E.A.R. Group website if you wish to partake in any protests, occurring either tomorrow December 3rd or Saturday December 8th. Or you can call Chris Christie’s office in order to ask for him to use his authority to cancel the hunt: 609-292-6000. It’s a long shot, but its definitely worth a try.
Finally, as a last point, you need just look at the numbers here. The total number of bears killed in just the last three years ranged around 1,000. The number of people actually killed by a bear in the state of New Jersey? Zero. Fatalities from bear attacks around the country have occurred, but not at the level many may think. This is why it is important to remember that the stigma of black bears as violent is an old, out-dated one. They want to live their lives as they are naturally inclined to do, and it is only by accident that they find themselves in residential areas. There are ways to coexist, and to see these animals are ends in themselves, finding a way to live, just as we do every day of our own lives.