New Jersey's first black bear hunt in two years got underway in earnest on Wednesday, with the first kill of the season reported in Sussex County and anti-hunt protesters keeping their distance.
A day after a state court lifted an emergency stay that had delayed the harvest, hunters headed into the woods across northwestern New Jersey, where state officials have said bear-human encounters are reaching dangerous levels. Wednesday was the first full day of the hunt.But in contrast to the raucous scenes of previous years, protesters, who call the hunt cruel and unnecessary, were in short supply. None was present at the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area near Newton, where opponents had gathered in previous years by a station where state wildlife officers register bear kills. Anti-hunt groups instead said they planned to post signs and banners in more populated areas around the rest of the state.
The state Department of Environmental Protection wasted no time on Tuesday after a court lifted the stay on the hunt, which was originally supposed to start Monday. The agency declared the season open within hours of the ruling and the DEP's website said the first bear kill was reported in Sussex County on Tuesday evening.
Terry Mowery of West Milford, Pennsylvania, stepped out of the woods Wednesday morning in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Walpack.
Mower has been an avid bear hunter "since I was 12. I'm 54 now." Mowery explained that he hunts in Pennsylvania, where bear hunting has been a tradition for years, and now hunts both deer and bear during the New Jersey season.
Asked what he would do with a bear if he shot one, Mowery said, "eat it."
"If cooked correctly, it tastes just like roast beef, maybe sweeter," he said.
Unlike previous hunts, the Whittingham weigh station, which is in Fredon Township, was remarkably quiet Wednesday.
A cadre of state police sat in their cars on one side of the station; conservation officers drifted away from the wildlife management area to go on to enforcement efforts; and bear biologists and their team, normally busy checking and weighing bears brought in by hunters, sat around a table in a nearby building with crockpots of chili.
The first bear didn’t arrive at the station until just after 1 p.m., an hour after the site opened. The hunter, who declined to give his name or hometown, shot the animal in West Milford earlier in the day. He was overheard telling state Fish and Wildlife officials that he dragged it for about a quarter-mile after calling a friend to come help.
The bruin was a male with a dressed weight of 250 pounds. State wildlife officers drew a tooth sample that will be used to determine its age.
Dave Golden, an assistant DEP commissioner, told reporters at the Whittingham station that officials were disappointed they had missed a day and a half of the originally planned season, and that rainy weather might hold down the first-day harvest. But he expected the hunt will meet its goal of reducing the bear population.
Off Green Pond Road in Morris County, two hunters in camouflage gear waited by another check-in station, with a bear carcass under a tarp. Trucks came and went at the Rockaway Township station throughout early Wednesday afternoon. But state officials closed off the site to the media and the members of the general public.
The hunt was revived this year after Gov. Phil Murphy abruptly reversed his previous opposition and said he'd been won over by reports of a dramatic increase in bear-human conflicts, which the state said had more than tripled in the first 10 months of 2022 compared to last year.
The hunt is being held in an area roughly defined as west of Interstate 287 and north of Interstate 78, including all or parts of Sussex, Warren, Morris, Hunterdon, Passaic and Bergen counties.
The 2022 hunt had been scheduled for this week — Monday through Saturday — before it was stopped by the appellate court as it considered the request for a permanent stay.
On Tuesday, Doris Lin, a member of the legal team for those seeking to end the hunt, said the group was deciding whether to go to the state Supreme Court for a final appeal and whether to seek to stay the hunt should that appeal be accepted to be heard.
The suit was brought by the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, the Humane Society of the United States, Friends of Animals and individuals Angela Metler and Doreen Prega. They went to the Appellate Division late last week seeking the permanent stay.
The groups were officially appealing the emergency action taken by the Fish and Game Council to institute a bear hunt this year, based on a new black bear management policy that was also approved at the same early-November meeting of the council.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ bear hunt 2022 starts. What you need to know