Fish-Game Council bucks DEP chief, clears bear hun

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Fish-Game Council bucks DEP chief, clears bear hunt
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
BY BRIAN T. MURRAY
Star-Ledger Staff
The state Fish and Game Council overwhelmingly approved a new black bear hunt yesterday, setting up a showdown with Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley Campbell, who vowed to instruct state wildlife officials not to issue permits.

The council voted 10-1 to approve the hunt, and Campbell attacked the decision hours later, charging the council had "refused to work with the department on a balanced approach to this issue."

The commissioner supported last year's hunt -- the first in 33 years -- but he began to argue several months ago that another hunt wasn't justified by science.

That decision came on the heels of fierce pressure from animal rights advocates, and critics have accused Campbell of playing politics by seeking to torpedo a hunt in the runup to Gov. James E. McGreevey's campaign for re-election.

Game council members continued to argue yesterday that a rising bear population justifies a second six-day bear hunt in December. They argued that they, not Campbell, are empowered by the Legislature to oversee hunting and vowed to circumvent his efforts to block the hunt.

George Howard, a game council member, said he is hopeful that won't be necessary.

"I think when push comes to shove, they'll see that what's at stake here is the proper management of the black bear resource and this is the only way to do it," he said.

Campbell and the council have been feuding for months, with the commissioner at loggerheads with his own biologists, whose documentation of a rising bear population combined with several high-profile run-ins between bears and humans became the impetus for last year's hunt.

Campbell again questioned his biologists' numbers yesterday and said residents want other solutions pursued before the state resorts to a hunt. He plans to initiate experimental birth control programs by this fall.

"There is a higher bar for a bear hunt," Campbell said. "There needs to be a higher degree of confidence in the data before you have another hunt."

Authorities said 328 bears were killed last year and that bear nuisance complaints were down this spring, although they could not draw a scientific link between the two. Biologists said that, this spring, black bears were found roaming every county in the state except Cape May.

"With the bears moving south, I think you have to come to the conclusion that they're having a population explosion in the north," said game council member Elwood Knight.

The council approved a hunt in a much-reduced area north of Route 78 and west of Route 287.

During the meeting yesterday, biologists again outlined their population data, which shows 1,480 bears in just 580 square miles studied in the northwest -- a third of the region hunted last year. The biologists estimated nearly three bears live in every square mile of that region.

Advocacy groups reacted with concerns over the day's events.

"One successful hunt won't solve our problems," the Sussex County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs said in a prepared statement. "To reduce overpopulation ... a hunting season must be an annual event."

The Humane Society of the United States said, "Instead of wasting resources on an inhumane and ineffective hunt, New Jersey should focus on long-range methods of reducing human-bear conflicts."

The battle over the hunt wasn't the only controversy of the day.

Council members spent much of their meeting venting over a $2 million budget diversion that members called "illegal and destructive."

The appointed council, which works in concert with the DEP's Division of Fish and Wildlife on regulating hunting seasons, criticized a state budget line that sent $2 million from the division's dedicated "Hunters and Anglers Fund" to another DEP branch, the Division of Parks and Forestry.

The council said the diversion will bring financial retribution from federal wildlife authorities, who grant the division $4.25 million annually as long as hunting and fishing fees support wildlife, fish and conservation programs.

It was unclear yesterday who was behind the diversion, but Campbell said the change was initiated by the Legislature. Council members hinted the move was an end-around designed to limit their resources.

"We're talking about losing millions of dollars from a division budget of only $16 million," said game council member Howard, a former division director. "This isn't just about the bear. This will destroy all of the wildlife research programs and fisheries under the division."

The council unanimously endorsed a letter urging McGreevey to stop the diversion, and its concern was shared by sporting organizations as well as the Sierra Club, which opposes the new bear hunt.

Campbell said the diversion was not his doing and was unconnected to the ongoing dispute. He said the DEP had no intention of using the hunters and angler money.

But Jeff Tittel, of the state Sierra Club chapter, said the diversion was taking the state in the wrong direction.

"One reason there is a bear hunt is because we haven't put enough resources into the wildlife division to properly manage our wildlife species," he said. "Now, instead of improving the situation, we have a budget that is actually taking money out of wildlife research."
 

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