That’s right, remember that you heard it here first; the NJ Black Bear hunt is inevitable. But you don’t need to sight in your slug gun just yet. As usual, our state government is still in denial about reality, in this case, the realities of nature. And a few things are going to have to change before a rational policy is adopted with regard to NJ’s second most dangerous predator. Unfortunately, the events that will turn the tide will not be happening to Governor Corzine or any of the other slimy invertebrate office holders in Trenton, but inevitably, to the children of northern New Jersey.
But before I get into that, let me tell you the story of my own experience with Bear hunting in New Jersey. I missed the first bear hunt entirely because I wasn’t a believer… that is to say, I didn’t believe that Trenton would actually allow it, so I didn’t attend the required bear biology classes and couldn’t qualify for a permit. But the second year, I had no intention of missing my chance.
I didn’t know anyone with private land in the bear-hunting zone, so about the end of May I started driving up to Millbrook Village in the Watergap National Recreation Area and started scouting around for bears on public land. I grew up in an area with no bears, but I’d heard that they love solitude, so I started my scouting in the high, difficult to reach places where I’d expect to find big deer. But after spending a full day scouting ridges, it became apparent that there wasn’t nearly enough “calories per acre” up there to support a large omnivore. So my next trip, I shifted my search down to the low dark spots on the valley floor near brooks and gullies.
Sure enough, down there the bear sign was everywhere. There were tracks, scat and all kinds of other signs all over the place, and it was clear that this is where the bears lived. But the problem with that was that it’s also where all the people live. All the good soil for farming and level ground for building is tucked down in the snug little valleys between the hills. And apparently the very thing that makes a spot desirable for people also makes it desirable for bears. Not that I minded that exactly, I bowhunt for deer in suburbia all the time and I wasn’t aiming for a “wilderness experience”. If I were, I wouldn’t be in New Jersey. But I figured that since I was going to be hunting on public land I probably needed to get as far from others as I could or the crowd might ruin my odds. Eventually I settled on a fairly remote valley, north of Millbrook Rd. The spot I liked was nearly a mile hike from the nearest road, and I thought that would be enough to discourage all but the most determined of my brethren come opening day.
Over the following months I was back and forth to that spot a dozen times. I walked nearly every inch of that valley, making patrol maps of everything as I went; taking copious notes on the age and size of all the bear sign. And by the time labor day rolled around I knew there was about 6 bears on the 4 or 5 square miles I mapped, at least 3 of which were adults, and 1 which was truly massive. (I even spotted a sow and her three cubs early one day in July as I was getting out of my car) I knew where they spent their days, what they were eating, where they were eating it, and I even had a trail marked out with illuminated reflectors, and a tree picked out for opening day.
In November when the courts finally got done with their nonsense and it was clear the hunt would be on, I bought an ultra light strap on tree stand and a bunch of strap on steps, and arranged for the time off from work. I filled my daypack with my knife, saw, a compact drag sled, and extra hand warmers. And at 3AM on opening day, my permit in hand, I rolled up to Millbrook village with roughly three hours left to hike in with my gear.
I set out quietly, and when I’d walked about 100 yards into the total blackness of the woods, I could hear several bears grumbling moaning and arguing about 70 yards into the darkness on my left. I was a little nervous about that, but I knew the landscape and wasn’t too concerned. I just kept walking and they thankfully left me alone. By 5:15 I was 22 feet up in my stand, and letting the woods grow quiet around me while I waited for legal light.
Not 2 minutes after legal shooting time, as if on cue, the massive bruiser of a bear whose behavior I’d been mapping all summer began lumbering toward me from the north. I first spotted him about 150 yards out. I was shooting a smoothbore Benelli 12 gauge with a rifled slug, and could be highly confident of my shot out to about 75 yards, but I was prepared to shoot out to about 90 yards if I had to. With all the work I put in, I had no intention of missing my chance because of too long a shot.
Slowly he continued to ramble idly toward me, 150 yards… 140 yards… 130 yards. He’d stop here and there to burrow in the ground or some such, but his irregular progress continued in my direction. At 120 yards, I clicked off my safety… 115 yards, 110 yards… I began to mentally visualize the shot… 105 yards; I put my sight on the bear’s front right shoulder. Then with a sudden start, the bear halted and turned its ears toward me and in a wink it ducked to its left behind some low brush, and was gone. I sat there amazed that it could see me so far away, all but fully obscured by the tree trunk, and that was when I heard it. Below me, and about 30 feet in front of me and 50 feet to my left, was an elderly man dressed in head to tow blaze orange, noisily stomping his way through the layer of ice and snow as he hiked between me and the bear.
He had no equipment other than a scoped shotgun, and was obviously in no condition to drag an animal back to the road over anything like the distance he would have had to from there. My guess was that he was just out for a stroll. As far as his stealthiness goes, the bear had heard his racket over the sounds of the nearby rushing stream, through 100 plus yards of dense forest and magnolia scrub. And the “hunter” (I know I stretch the use of the word) was so crisply aware of his surroundings that he never saw me, 22 feet up in a tree stand, wearing a blaze orange vest and hat, less than 10 yards from where he was marching. I didn’t want to get in a heavily armed shouting match with the guy, so I kept my mouth shut and let him walk right by me to go ruin someone else’s chances that day. He never knew that I or the bear, was ever there.
I had done everything right. I’d done all my prep work, and all my scouting, I even went so far as to stay out of the valley for two months before hunting season started so the bears could go “back to normal” without smelling me everywhere they went. But the one thing, which turned out to be my downfall, was that I had underestimated the size and relative obliviousness of the NJ opening day crowd. So much for hunting public land bears in the most densely populated state in the country. (Reader please take note, I’m already working on a piece for next September titled: “Experienced hunter seeks private land for NJ Bear hunt”… I promise I’ll say very nice things about you.)
Anyway, I didn’t know that much about bear behavior when I got started, but after that ordeal, I know a lot about them now. And that’s how I know that another bear hunt is inevitable. It’s going to happen because of the events in the wilderness over the next few years without a bear hunt. For instance, did you know that the DEP biologists have lots of evidence that the bears in our area don’t even hibernate? It seems that there is enough food out there all year long to make it worth their while not to. And that high availability of food means that the population will continue to grow like gangbusters.
In the meantime, the animal rights nut jobs will probably continue to hold substantial sway in Trenton. All of their ideas for controlling the bear population sound like a very expensive case of clinical insanity. The best of them are charitably described as “unproven”, but the truth is that most are so preposterous that the biologists for the state DEP make jokes about them. “Birth control for bears will work fine” they say, “It’s just a bitch teaching the bears how to put the condoms on”. (Yes, that’s really what the animal rights people mean when they say “non lethal bear management”.)
So with basically no effective check on their population, the bears will quickly take up all of the wilderness available to them, and then some. And once that occurs, disaster will certainly follow. All it’s going to take, is for the climate of New Jersey to offer a few good years in a row where the bear population swells, followed by one harder year of drought where food is scarce, and the bears of New Jersey will start eating the dogs out of our yards, and taking babies out of their carriages.
And that is when the politicians will have no choice but to start listening to reason. They will either allow licensed hunting as a way to bring the bear population in line with the available habitat, or the New Jersey black bear will become the most aggressively poached animal in American history. On the day after a bear kills that first child, every farmer and homeowner in northern New Jersey will start shooting bears on sight and quietly disposing of the evidence. And the sooner the government comes to grip with that reality, the better for the people of New Jersey and the bears. They need to understand that no-one is going to stand by while their children are put at risk from a large and dangerous animal, while government policy is set by a bunch of wack-jobs who think squirrels should have the vote. No one, not even New Jersey Democrats, are that dense.
And unfortunately given the current policy in Trenton, the death of that child is as certain as the sunrise. It’s not a question of “if” it’s going to happen; it’s only a question of “when”. The government is determined to allow the animal rights nuts to set policy long enough to ensure it. I’m so confident of its inevitability that at this point I’m hoping that it only takes one incident for the government to get its head straight.
Thankfully, we now have people out there like Anthony Mauro, and the NJOA who will do all they can to make sure it doesn’t have to happen to a second child before the policy is changed, and with a little luck, they won’t be too late. And you never know, the NJOA is a persuasive bunch so they may even talk some sense into the rabble in Trenton before that first child ends up dead. Given the lack of rationality in the state house I’m not going to bet on it, but I admit that it’s possible. The NJOA has surprised people before, so let’s hope they manage to do it again.
But if they don’t, then thanks to a ridiculous black bear policy, you can be sure that “NJ Animal Rights” will inevitably mean “NJ Dead Children”. That’s right, I’m going to actually say it, … we’ll eventually have a bear hunt in New Jersey because: “It’s For The Children”.