- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

FREDON, N.J. (AP) - The last of New Jersey’s five scheduled state-sponsored bear hunts began Monday as wildlife officials and opponents of the hunt sparred over whether it has been effective and should be renewed.

Hunters faced crisp, clear weather, and no problems were reported, Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese said. They killed 124 black bears, according to data on the state Division of Fish & Wildlife’s website.

There were 72 black bears killed in Sussex County, 24 in Warren, 13 in Morris, 10 in Passaic, three in Hunterdon and two in Bergen.

Marc Beardslee, of Vernon, was the first to arrive at a state science station with a female bear that he had killed, Ragonese said.

“Our properties are getting really overpopulated with the bears, so I’m glad I can help,” Beardslee told NJ.com, adding that he got a “nice clear shot” of the bear with his shotgun because it was very close to a path.

By the end of the day, a nearly 700-pound bear that Ragonese said may be the largest one killed all week had been brought to the weigh station. Steven Polanish, of Hopatcong, killed the 693-pound bruin with a shotgun Monday.

Ragonese said 7,800 permits were issued to about 6,000 hunters this season.

About 30 protesters gathered outside the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area in Fredon to denounce the hunt as cruel and unnecessary.

“I feel so bad for the bears that are getting killed. These bears have emotions. They’re just like us,” said protester Bill Crain, a psychology professor at City College of New York. “The mothers are going to die, and the cubs will be left as orphans.”

Crain has been arrested at five previous bear protests for leaving the boundaries set up for demonstrators, but he said that his wife “says if I get arrested, that will be a little too much this time.”

While the number of bears in the state has decreased since the state instituted the hunt in 2010, some critics point to the bear mauling death of Rutgers University student Darsh Patel in September as evidence there is too much focus on killing the bears and not enough on educating the public.

About 1,600 bears have been killed in the last four hunts, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. In 2010, there were 3,400 bears living north of Interstate 80, roughly in the upper one-eighth of the state, according to a state Fish and Game Council report that supported the resumption of the bear hunt, in part to ensure public safety. The DEP estimates there are about 2,500 bears in that area now.

The number of reports of aggressive bears has dropped since the hunt resumed in 2010, but some incidents have risen sharply this year.

Reports of Category 1 bears, defined as bruins that are aggressive and a danger to humans or livestock, fell from 235 in 2010 to 129 last year. Yet while home entries and attempted entries fell from 90 in 2010 to 33 last year, they have risen to 44 through late November. In addition, reports of bears killing livestock rose from 21 to 35 between 2012 and 2013.

Though the hunt is focused on New Jersey’s western and northern counties, state wildlife officials say bears have been spotted in all 21 counties.

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