Court Rules Against Bid to Open State Lands to Black Bear Hunt

Murphy administration’s prohibition holds for now. Sporting groups pledge to continue their fight to overturn it

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A state appeals court has denied a bid by three sporting groups to open state lands to next month’s scheduled black bear hunt.

In a 41-page decision issued Friday, the court rejected a challenge by the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, Safari Club International, and Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation to the Murphy administration’s ban on hunting of bears on state-controlled lands.

In the decision, the latest chapter of recurring controversy and litigation over hunting of black bears, the three-judge panel dismissed arguments by the pro-hunting groups that the closure was impermissibly based on a political campaign promise made by Gov. Phil Murphy.

“The merit (or even the probability of success) of appellants’ claim of public necessity for a hunt to take place on state lands has yet to be established,’’ the court said, noting bear hunters will still have access to other lands and the hunt may be extended if the harvest falls below specified targets.

In August, the governor issued an executive order preventing the hunting of bears on state lands, but stopped short of ending the hunt altogether, saying he lacked legal authority to do so. Murphy campaigned on a promise to end the bear hunt, a policy long advocated by animal rights groups and some environmental organizations but opposed by the New Jersey Fish and Game Council.

Increase in black bear population

Credit: Tim Lumley/Flickr
Black bear
New Jersey held its first bear hunt since 1970 back in 2003 after a growth in the black bear population led to increased encounters with the public in backyards and outdoors, particularly in northern New Jersey. Despite an outcry from critics, the state has held a bear hunt the past eight years.

In their appeal, the sporting groups argued the closure of hunting on state lands conflicts with current state policy to use the hunt as a tool in managing black bear populations in New Jersey and minimizing human-bear conflicts.

The court agreed, in part, and remanded the case back to the administrative office of law to determine whether the ban on hunting on state lands undermines the Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy (CBBMP). The judges found there is no factual record to determine whether the decision to close hunting on state lands was arbitrary and capricious.

In the past, 40 percent of bears killed in the hunt were encountered on state lands. In the first phase of this bear hunting season in October — the first where such a ban was in place — the number of bears killed declined by 43 percent from the previous year to 139.

The case is likely to wind up before the New Jersey Supreme Court. “It looks like it’s going to be a long drawn out fight,’’ the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance said in a statement issued yesterday. “And make no mistake, we are in this fight for the long haul.’’

The six-day hunt is scheduled to begin on December 3.

Meanwhile, a separate challenge by the Animal Protection League of New Jersey to the validity of the 2015 CBBMP is still pending in the appellate division, which heard arguments on the case earlier this month.