By Jim Northrop, GSWA Volunteer
Black bears are the largest wilderness mammal in New Jersey. An average adult male bear weighs about 300 pounds, while females average about 170 pounds.
Since the 1980’s, the black bear population has been increasing and expanding its range both southward and eastward, from the forested areas of northwestern New Jersey. In the most densely-populated state of the U.S., black bears are thriving, and there are now confirmed bear sightings in all 21 of New Jersey’s counties.
In the most recent New Jersey black bear hunting season (October 10 – 15, 2016), the NJDEP’s Division of Fish & Wildlife reports that 487 bears were killed by hunters. This suggests that the total population of New Jersey black bears may be in the thousands.
So, the NJDEP (the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection) has recognized that it must have a black bear management policy that fairly balances the rights of people and the “rights” of New Jersey’s black bears. The objective would be a policy which maintains bears at a density that provides for a sustainable black bear population, within suitable bear habitat. The policy must have some non-lethal bear management features. There was a need for bear habitat analysis and protection of their habitat from disruption. Also needed was a policy that would minimize human-bear conflicts and reduce the emigration of black bears to unsustainable habitat in suburban and urban areas.
The NJDEP’s Division of Fish & Wildlife uses an array of techniques as it seeks to meet these goals. They use two primary methods — educating people to not feed the bears, and to securely dispose of their garbage and organic litter. Equally important is the regulated black bear hunting season, the rules for which have evolved over recent years of experimentation.
Since 2010, the black bear hunting season has been held concurrently with the 6-day Firearm Deer Season. For 2016, however, the requirements were refined significantly. Participants are now required to have a Black Bear Hunting Zone Permit for the zone(s) they hunt in, and a current hunting license. There are five bear hunting zones. Four of them cover the six northern New Jersey counties. Most of New Jersey’s black bears are found north of Interstate 80 and west of Interstate 287. Morris County is in Bear Management Zone #4. In Morris County, 98 black bears were harvested in October, 2015.
Hunters may possess permits for two separate zones; prior to 2016, hunters were limited to one black bear for the season.
Importantly, in 2016 there are now two (time) “Segments” to the bear hunting season. Segment “A” was October 10 – 15, of which October 10 – 12 were for archery hunting only. The final three days (October 13 – 15) were for both archery and muzzleloading rifle hunters. Segment “B” is for firearms (shotgun / muzzleloader) only, and will be held concurrently with the 6-day Firearm Deer Season, December 5 – 10, with an option for the season to be extended by NJDEP up to one more week if black bear harvest objectives have not been met.
For 2016, the season bag limit has been increased to two bears, but only one per Zone Permit, and per Segment. Hunters may initially purchase two Zone Permits (one each for different Zones), or a second Permit for the same Zone during Segment “B”, if available. Only those Permit holders with a valid Permit(s) for Segment “B” who did not harvest a bear during the regular part of Segment “B”, may hunt during the Segment “B” extension.
Also new in 2016 is the elimination of the Zone Permit lottery. All permits are now sold “over the counter” at License Agents and online.
The bear hunting season will close if the harvest rate reaches 30% of the bears tagged in 2016. A season closure becomes effective 24 hours from the daily legal closing time of the day on which the decision is made.
New Jersey’s current black bear management policies have several valuable principles. Importantly, the use of hunting Zones with one-bear bagging limits, forces a distribution geographically of black bear mortality. Secondly, the two-Segment concept gives the regulators precise and flexible control over the annual culling of black bears.
However, the NJDEP’s Division of Fish & Wildlife has decidedly little or no control over the human behavior which so often tempts black bears to get themselves into trouble — such as unsecured garbage cans, organic litter left at campsites or along the road. All of us have a responsibility here as we seek to minimize human-bear conflict.