*Scott Wagner, pictured above, nailed a 171-pound bear he spotted while dragging out a 6-point buck.
It was Dec. 6 and the first bear hunt in New Jersey in five long years had opened with daylight. I knew New Jersey is a small state—it totals just 7,417 square miles, meaning it’s 479 square miles smaller than Carbon County, Wyo.—nevertheless, I was surprised that my GPS indicated it was just a 30 minute drive from where I could see the Manhattan skyline in my rearview mirror to a black-bear check station.
Nevertheless, the state’s 6,680 bear permits sold out. Indeed, between sub-developments, Italian delis and McMansions that were the setting for HBO’s hit series “The Sopranos,” I saw parked cars and people in bright orange outfits heading into woodlots. These were the people New Jersey’s former governor, Jon Corzine, thought the state could do without—until he got voted out, anyway. The state’s current governor, Chris Christie, sees them differently. Christie made reinstating a hunt into a campaign issue. Here’s why: The state now has at least 3,400 bears in its northwestern corner. Since New Jersey’s last bear season, in 2005, the number of bear-related problems has surged—including “category-one complaints” where a person’s life might be in danger. Before the hunt the state said there were between two and three bears per square mile in some areas, or about seven times more than the available habitat could sustain.
Regardless, a few days before this Dec. 6-11 bear hunt, anti-hunting groups pushed a last-minute legal challenge. Governor Christie called the antis’ lawsuit “laughable,” and, just two days before the bear season, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed by ruling that the hunt could go on as planned.
With all that background I pulled into a bear check station—at Black River Wildlife Management Area—expecting mayhem. Instead I found a line of hunters waiting to check in their deer. “No bears in here yet,” said one hunter, “Go up into Suffix County. They have so many bears up there you see ’em feeding along Route 15. I’m disappointed there aren’t any protesters down here though; I’d like to show ’em my deer. I’d like them to thank me for making it less likely they’ll smash into a deer some dark night.”
I left the dozen hunters laughing and motored up Route 15. The Soprano suburbs faded to cornfields and oak ridges and I pulled into the Flatbrook-Roy Wildlife Management Area’s check station. No protesters were there either. The biologists there had already checked in 24 bears though. Moments after I arrived, another lucky hunter, Edward J. Karecki III, pulled in. He is 18 years old and spent all summer scouting and hoping. Biologists weighed his bear at 140 pounds and measured its teeth and claws and more. They’ll use all the data to determine the health of the bear population so they can make educated policy recommendations going forward.
Before they were through another hunter’s pickup rolled in. Scott Wagner had a 171-pound bear and a 6-point buck. While he was dragging out the buck, he spotted the bear. After Wagner left, Tony McBride, a state biologist, explained, “We’re expecting a kill of 400 to 700 bears, which won’t even be enough, but it’s a start.”
When I asked about the opposition to the hunt, McBride said, “The protesters are all down at the check station in Whittingham Wildlife Management Area. It’s a bit closer to New York City. It’s also where all the TV crews are. The police already arrested one protester there—some guy from New York. Those people just don’t get it. This is a major wildlife success story. All we’re doing is using hunting to balance the bear population with habitat and human safety to make sure it stays a success story.” He stopped when he saw yet another hunter arriving. I’d certainly come to the busiest check station, whereas the protestors had all gone to a check station nearer to their urban homes, which incidentally was where the TV crews were most likely to be. They didn’t really care about protesting. What they really cared about was protesting on TV.
In all, hunters tagged 264 bears the first day of the state’s six-day season, so residents living along the divide between rural and suburban New Jersey would be a bit safer after this hunt. After meeting so many hunters and biologists, I left with the opinion that the impression of New Jersey we get from “The Sopranos,” as well as the reality shows “Jersey Shore” and “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” is just of a small, if bizarre, percentage of the overall population.