Animal-rights groups such as Bear Education and Resource (BEAR) are now lobbying for “Pedal’s Law,” after it was rejected by the state Senate.
The law was proposed by Raymond Lesniak in response to the death of social-media-famous “Pedals” the bear, who was legally harvested this past October. If the bill is passed, it would effectively ban bear hunting in New Jersey for five years, while implementing a nonlethal bear management program. The presumable notion is that after that five years is up, new legislation will move in and ban in New Jersey bear hunting for good.
While Lesniak and his activist supporters believe the law will move forward environmental integrity in New Jersey, they are failing to recognize key components of our state’s wildlife management system.
When Europeans colonized America, black bears roamed from the northern mountains of Jersey all the way down to the sandy peninsula we now call Cape May County. Viewing the 300-pound omnivores as a species of competition and nuisance, colonists nearly wiped out Jersey’s bear population in just a few centuries. In the early 1900s, realizing that wildlife and habitat were being depleted at an alarming rate, Americans implemented wildlife-management initiatives at the state and federal levels. These included a complete ban of market hunting, habitat management initiatives, and the use of recreational hunting as a management tool. As a result, the black bear population in New Jersey rebounded to the population we see today, which is now estimated to be around 3,500, most of which are confined to Jersey’s northwestern counties.
In 2016, there were 1,400 accounts of nuisance bears, which are reported as incidents that include property damage, home entry, livestock kills, and attacks on humans. This number may seem high, but it is imperative to note that this number is relatively low compared to the years without a bear season. A year after New Jersey opened its first bear hunt in 2003, reports of nuisance encounters dropped by 42 percent. If New Jersey ends the bear hunt with Pedal’s Law, we can expect the nuisance incidents to drastically increase.
Yet proponents of Pedal’s Law state that nonlethal tactics can substitute hunting as a control in population management. Nonlethal methods include artificial sterilization by Department of Environmental Protection staff biologists, and relocation of transient bears. However, there are some serious problems with these proposed solutions.
For one, New Jersey already has a response team for trapping and relocating nuisance bears, called the Bear Response Unit. According to a 2009 study conducted by East Stroudsburg University researchers in conjunction with Union County College and New Jersey Fish and Wildlife, the strike team is virtually useless in its attempts to deter nuisance Jersey black bears. Their research indicates that all the bears trapped and relocated into the wild by the response unit return to urban areas within 17 days of their release. When this happens, the response team is forced to euthanize the reoccurring nuisance bears.
What about the idea of artificial sterilization? On paper, this seems to be an effective control. This plan will implement a strategy in which female bears are captured and artificially sterilized, or a male bear administered surgical vasectomy, by a trained biologist. However, the Division of Fish and Wildlife reports that there is no FDA-approved contraceptive or sterilization drug readily available for use on black bears.
Even if there were, the tactic would prove costly. Time and money would be needed to capture bears and administer a purchased drug or carry out a surgical procedure. New Jersey Fish and Wildlife operates on a budget, and to allocate financial resources to such a costly venture would be irresponsible. Other species that are not thriving and amid a population boom like the black bear are in desperate need of Fish and Wildlife funding. Bobwhite quail and ruffed grouse are one example and have been absent from much of their southern New Jersey range for decades. Endangered state species such as the Allegheny woodrat, bobcat, and Indiana bat are struggling in comparison to the healthily populated black bear and are much more deserving of state funding. I find it hardly virtuous to replace hunting with expensive substitutes when money could be more efficiently allocated to protecting species in dire need.
Not only does hunting save the state time and money in controlling black bear populations, but it also provides money to Fish and Wildlife. Every time there is a purchase of a hunting license or a bear tag, the revenue is returned directly to the state. With this funding, the state can fund biologists, game wardens, and management programs to ensure a thriving bear population. In fact, this method works so well that bears are now returning to their native range in South Jersey.
But there still stands the issue of trophy hunting. Shouldn’t we, in the 21st century, ban such barbaric acts as trophy hunting and killing for fun? Yes, I believe we should. If this were a problem in New Jersey, I would be on the front lines to abolish it. The truth of the matter is, however, that trophy hunting is not an issue. In fact, it is outlawed. New Jersey has a law against wanton waste of wild game. The New Jersey Hunting & Trapping Digest states: “It is unlawful for any person to take, kill, or capture any game mammal or game bird and remove from the carcass the head, hide or antlers and leave the edible portions of the carcass and meat to waste except for a furbearer, crow or woodchuck.” To clarify, black bears are not listed as furbearers under New Jersey state regulations, and in turn cannot be hunted solely for taxidermy or trophy purposes.
Black bear meat is reported as sweet and tender, although variable depending on diet. Daniel Boone, early pioneer and legendary woodsman of the 18th century, preferred black bear meat even over venison, making everything from bacon to ham out of its edible parts. New Jersey Fish and Wildlife offers a comprehensive recipe guide for prospective bear hunters. Any claim that the Jersey bear hunt is in support of trophy hunting is simply ludicrous.
In events like the death of Pedals, it is easy to let emotion and compassion cloud judgement. The fact of the matter is, protestors are allocating their resources in the wrong places. Instead of attacking hunting as a barbaric and ineffective practice, there must be a public understanding that hunting seasons are used as a wildlife management tool to gain money and propagate species.
Black bears must be treated like all other wildlife in New Jersey, and must be managed in a manner that will serve to protect, propagate, and conserve their species while in compliance with an increasing human presence and not overriding the needs of other species. Regardless of differing emotional perspectives, the New Jersey bear hunt serves a purpose, and does it well.