- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - As the state prepares to expand its bear hunting season this year, animal activists and other critics vow to continue their fight against what they say is its misguided bear management policy.

Besides the annual hunt in December, a new six-day hunting season will be added in October. Wildlife officials say three days will be reserved for bow hunting and three will allow hunting with bows and arrows and muzzle-loading guns.

Hunters also will be able to take two bears, not one, but the bears must be killed in separate seasons.

State wildlife officials have touted the annual hunt as an important part of controlling the bear population and minimizing run-ins with humans, particularly in the northern part of New Jersey known as bear country.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a presidential contender, was pressed by voters in New Hampshire on Sunday about his decision to authorize a bear hunt.

“New Jersey has been overrun by black bears. We’ve been overrun,” Christie told several hundred people at his first town hall of the year. “They’re coming into neighborhoods. They’re coming into homes.”

He said the problem has struck close to home for him: Campaign workers at his headquarters in Morristown went out for lunch recently and encountered a black bear in a tree three blocks away.

But the bear hunt continues to draw fire from animal welfare activists and others who say it’s inhumane and unnecessary. The new October hunting season is drawing the most concern from activists, who fear hunters using arrows will more likely wound or maim the animals instead of killing them.

“It’s very hard to drop a 400-pound bear with one arrow,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This is an example of the (Department of Environmental Protection) doubling down on a failed policy. We have had six bear hunts in a row but still have the same number of aggressive bears and more bear-related problems.”

New Jersey resumed state-regulated bear hunting in 2003 after a ban that lasted more than 30 years. Another hunt was held in 2005, and in 2010 the state instituted an annual hunt.

Critics have said the state should instead enforce garbage management policies and laws prohibiting the feeding of bears. Activists have also called for using aversion therapy, which trains bears to be afraid of humans and to avoid them, and birth control measures to help keep the population under control.

State officials conducted a study on bear birth control techniques several years ago but concluded hormone implants, surgical procedures, chemicals and vaccines weren’t feasible.

Hunters killed 510 bears during the December hunt, the Department of Environmental Protection said. State officials estimate 3,500 bears live in New Jersey north of Interstate 80, roughly the upper one-eighth of the state.

“Hunting is an important tool in maintaining an ecological balance with our black bear population and is necessary to reduce the potential for conflicts between bears and people,” DEP Commissioner Bob Martin has said.

Black bears serve an important role in healthy ecosystems. They can travel great distances and disperse the seeds of many different plant species while feeding on fruits and berries. They can also clear out small amounts of vegetation while foraging, which opens up space for other plants. But there are concerns some may be going hungry due to the bear population density being too high, officials said.

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