NJ judge temporarily blocks revived bear hunt, days before season set to begin

New Jersey's plans for the state's first black bear hunt in two years have been put on hold while a state appellate court hears arguments on whether the season can be held starting next week.

State Appellate Division Judge Lisa Rose on Wednesday gave a coalition of hunt opponents until 4 p.m. Friday to file formal objections to the hunt. She said the state Department of Environmental Protection would have until 4 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 5 — the day the hunt was supposed to begin — to file a response.

Any oral arguments or filings beyond that would stretch further into what was supposed to be a six-day black bear hunt scheduled to begin just before sunrise on Monday.

The hunt was scheduled for this year by the state Fish and Game Council using emergency powers after Gov. Phil Murphy abruptly reversed his years-long stance against the practice. In late October, the Democratic governor said he was lifting his objections. He cited an increase in bear-human encounters and the opinion of wildlife biologists that the bruin population was growing rapidly and spreading beyond the northwestern corner of the state.

That's the part of New Jersey where the most complaints about bear activity have been received. The hunt is scheduled to be 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.

A group of anti-hunt and animal rights groups went to Rose late Tuesday to request a stay, and the judge agreed early Wednesday afternoon.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state DEP, said the department would have no immediate comment on Rose's stay or what it might mean for the 2022 bear season. The DEP, which works with the Fish and Game Council, has the option of extending the hunt into the following week, but beyond that, the number of bears in the woods is likely to fall drastically as the animals enter their winter hibernation period.

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In a news release announcing the lawsuit on Tuesday, Kate Hendrix of the Humane Society of the United States said, “The Fish and Game Council unlawfully used emergency powers to ram through an unpopular and unnecessary hunt while denying New Jersey citizens their due process rights under state law.”

Hendrix, a staff attorney for the society, also said, "The public is not facing any ‘imminent peril’ from New Jersey’s bruins, and the numbers that the agency cites to claim otherwise are misleading and taken out of context. The real emergency is the threat hundreds of New Jersey’s bears will face if this horrific, unscientific hunt is not stopped.”

If not blocked by the court, the hunt will be the first in two years. For the two years before that, Murphy allowed a limited bear hunt but prohibited it on state-owned lands, including wildlife management areas owned by the Division of Fish and Game and all other state parks and forests.

As directed by the Fish and Game Council, the bear hunt was scheduled to begin a half-hour before dawn on Monday and run through a half-hour after sunset on Saturday, Dec. 10. The hunt is limited to shotguns and open only to licensed hunters who obtain a $2 permit to kill bears in one of five specific zones in the northwestern part of the state.

The news release said the groups filing the lawsuit include the Humane Society, the Animal Protection League of New Jersey and the group Friends of Animals. The groups called the season a "black bear trophy hunt" and said it was wrongfully authorized by a pro-hunter Fish and Game Council. Hunt clubs nominate six of the council's 11 members, the groups said.

According to the state constitution, council members are appointed by the governor with the consent of the state Senate. The 11 members of the panel include six members representing "sportsmen," three representing "farmers," one from the "public," and the chair of the state's Endangered and Nongame Species Advisory Committee.

Sportsmen candidates could also be recommended to the governor by fishing, wildlife and conservation organizations. The members are not paid, have legal oversight of the Division of Fish and Wildlife, set the state's hunting and fishing regulations, and determine, on recommendation by division biologists, game and fish that can legally be taken.

This article originally appeared on New Jersey Herald: NJ bear hunt 2022: Judge temporarily halts harvest after lawsuit