New Jersey: Bear Expert Testifies Against State Land Closures

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The saga of bear hunting in New Jersey continues with anti-hunting politicians adding new twists to the tale after expert testimony given in court illustrated how the closure of state lands has undermined public safety and wildlife management.

The Sportsmen’s Alliance and our partners, The New Jersey Outdoor Alliance and Safari Club International, placed bear expert Dr. John McDonald on the stand to testify to on behalf of hunters, while the state called the New Jersey Department of Protection’s expert, Mr. Anthony McBride.

Through three days of testimony and cross examination by both parties, the Sportsmen’s Alliance coalition focused on proving four points that would make the closure of state lands “arbitrary and capricious” as outlined by earlier appellate courts and in accordance with the Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy, which the state is legally bound to follow, and which has an objective of first reducing the black bear population and then stabilizing it in accordance with available habitat and consistent with reducing risk to public safety and property.

The earlier ruling in the appellate court found that the closure of state lands would be subject to reversal if their actions undermined the effectiveness of the bear plan, imperiled public safety or were otherwise arbitrary and capricious.

Offering evidence and testimony, which was undisputed by the state, the Sportsmen’s Alliance and Dr. McDonald showed that, among other points, the closure of state lands undermined the most basic principle of the bear plan – a harvest rate of 20-30 percent. In the three years prior, the average harvest rate was 20.1 percent. After Gov. Murphy closed state lands, bear harvest fell to 14.8 percent. In fact, the average annual harvest fell from 518 bears before the closure (2015-17) to 270 bears after the closure (2018-19). The state contends that the abrupt 50 percent drop off in harvest immediately after the closure might have occurred anyways, even though state land accounted for more than 40 percent of the harvest in all preceding years.   

Unchallenged evidence demonstrated that prior to the state land closure, the bear plan was working as intended. Dr. McDonald testified that the closure of state lands was having the opposite effect of the recommendations in the bear plan, and that Gov. Murphy’s executive order had erased the gains of population reduction from prior seasons, as the population boomed by more than 44 percent in just one year and there was a 66.9 percent increase in all human-bear incident categories compared to 2019.

Without hunting, Dr. McDonald said, sanctuaries were created on large tracts of state-owned land, which had multiple effects inconsistent with the bear policy. Not only did these sanctuaries facilitate an increase in population overall, but also localized population increases in areas adjacent to these state lands. Likewise, with no hunting pressure on state lands, citizens were put at greater risk due to the increased local populations. Additionally, the closures completely undermined the bear policy directive that the state use reliable methods for estimating the size of the black bear population. The closure made the ability to accurately estimate the population impossible, again violating the policy that the state is legally bound to follow. (The method the state has long used involves using sampling to calculate each individual bear’s chance of harvest – the sampling is thrown off by closing so much land).

Finally, the state offered no data or evidence to support the closure of state lands, the very definition of arbitrary and capricious in layman terms as well as case law. Indeed, the governor and commissioner acted against the recommendations and warnings of the state’s own staff, as well as years of supporting evidence – facts even acknowledged by Mr. McBride, the state’s expert witness.

As the October season takes place on private and federal land, the Sportsmen’s Alliance and our partners await a ruling from the Administrative Law Judge, with the hope of opening state lands for New Jersey bear hunters for the December season. In the meantime, we’ll address the new fabrications (see below) that Gov. Murphy and other anti-hunting politicians have falsely manipulated the media into repeating.

Political Ploys & Sideshow Shenanigans

As if defending proven wildlife management in court weren’t enough, New Jersey’s anti-hunting politicians seem bound and determine to turn the ordered logic of scientific principles into a three-ring circus just to appeal to a very vocal but minor voting bloc in the Garden State. Whether it’s simply gamesmanship or legal ignorance is hard to know, as both tactics are as ridiculous as they are matters of defined state policy and precedent.

Murphy’s Misstep: Out of nowhere during a COVID-19 press conference, Gov. Murphy announced, and later Tweeted, the end of the bear hunt after the 2020 season. His reasoning was based on a year-old proposal from the state’s Fish & Game Commission to separate the black bear management plan from the game code. Murphy’s misstep, however, is failing to recognize that it’s merely a procedural matter; every seven years, by law, New Jersey code has to be renewed. It expires at the end of 2021. The bear management plan, however, expires June 2021. The question becomes: is Gov. Murphy blatantly lying to constituents or does he not understand how policy and procedure work in the state he’s supposed to be running?

Anti-Hunters Push Frivolous Lawsuit: With one lawsuit up in the air and Gov. Murphy Tweeting obviously erroneous and indefensible information, animal-rights activists, led by Ray Lesniak, a former state senator, have indicated that they will file suit to declare that the appointing process and the composition of the Fish & Game Commission is unconstitutional because sportsmen dominate its makeup and that it precludes the public from decision making, which they claim violates the Equal Protection Clause of the state and federal constitutions. Case law, however, would disagree with them.

About the Sportsmen’s Alliance: The Sportsmen’s Alliance protects and defends America’s wildlife conservation programs and the pursuits – hunting, fishing and trapping – that generate the money to pay for them. Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation is responsible for public education, legal defense and research.  Its mission is accomplished through several distinct programs coordinated to provide the most complete defense capability possible. Stay connected to Sportsmen’s Alliance: OnlineFacebookTwitter and Instagram.