Amid protests, N.J. bear hunt continues

After 33 years, state opens 6-day season to reduce population

December 12, 2003|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

VERNON TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Smiling proudly, a father and son dressed in winter camouflage and blaze orange caps emerged from the hills beyond Lake Wawayanda. In the bed of their pickup truck lay a 200-pound female black bear, her enormous paws outstretched, her head slumped to one side as though she was sleeping.

"She was a healthy, hearty female," said Martin McHugh, director of New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife.

The bear, shot Tuesday afternoon in the snowy woods of northern New Jersey, was one of more than 215 bears killed in the first three days after the state opened a six-day black bear hunting season this week, the first such hunt in 33 years.

The brief season, which is scheduled to end tomorrow and has been deemed by state officials as necessary to curb an overpopulation of black bears, has provoked fiery controversy.

Animal rights activists sued unsuccessfully to get the hunt called off and have taken to the woods to, as some proclaimed, "serve as a buffer between man and bear." For a time, there was even a push to put the bears on birth control.

Residents in the areas heavily populated by the bears have responded with equal passion, insisting that the bears have become dangerously brazen around people because the creatures have grown accustomed to skulking into towns at night and sifting though Dumpsters and garbage cans for food. They say their children are scared to walk out to catch the school bus alone.

"Feelings are very strong on every side of this issue," McHugh said.

That much has been obvious this week at Wawayanda State Park, where much of the hunting is taking place. In the idyllic park, where snow-capped, evergreen-covered hills surround placid lakes, the two sides have faced off.

"What a big, macho man you are to kill one little bear," Barbara Van Blarcum said Tuesday evening, her voice dripping with sarcasm as state officials weighed the huge black bear that hunter Robert Van Mater had just shot.

Van Mater ignored the heckling. A lifelong hunter, he had risen just before dawn and headed into the woods around Lake Wawayanda. Though he has hunted deer and fowl since he was a boy, he had never gone looking for bear before. Not quite knowing what to expect, he settled in, crouched by a tree, and waited until a huge bear came lumbering along.

Four shots later, he had bagged his first bear.

For hunters like Van Mater, who traveled about 100 miles to hunt in New Jersey's bear country, the hunt is entirely about the sport. However, the pitched debate over the killing of bears has become palpable, even in the isolated woods.

Protesters gather at checkpoints where hunters are required to bring bears they shoot to be tallied and inspected by state wildlife officials. Carrying signs with the likenesses of cuddly bears and displaying mock badges that read "Bear Non-Hunting License," the protesters react with anger each time a hunter with a dead bear arrives.

Van Blarcum, who lives in an area where bear sightings are common, summed up the complaints that many people have about the hunt. She said New Jersey "has a people problem, not a bear problem," because residents are failing to follow state law and use bear-proof garbage bins, thus tempting the bears from the woods.

Perhaps what most bothers Van Blarcum, a retired corporate executive, is that she has seen these bears up close many times. She believes them to be docile and smart.

"I once saw one of them crossing a highway," she said. "I was so close we looked right in each other's eyes. He waited until I had passed and then - I swear to you - that bear looked both ways before crawling over the rail and crossing the road."

Throughout, state officials have stood their ground. They contend that the bears pose a risk to the public, particularly in light of stories that some bears have become so fearless they have entered homes through open doors. Officials mention environmental studies that estimate there are three bears per square mile in some of the most populated bear country.

Thus far legal attempts to block the hunt have failed. A state appeals panel refused to bar hunting in state parks. And a federal court judge lifted a ban on hunting in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation area, a national park.

So the hunt goes on. More than 5,500 hunting permits were issued, and state officials expect between 3 percent and 8 percent of those hunters will "harvest" a bear. That would bring the tally to between 165 and 440 bears, which officials say is less than 25 percent of an estimated 2,000 bears in the state.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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