The Department of Environmental Protection said in a brief filed with the state Appellate Division that the number of black bears must be reduced. It estimates the state's black bear population at 3,400, up from 500 or so in the early 1990s. State Fish and Game Council records show there were 943 bear sightings and 1,994 damage or nuisance complaints through the first 11 months of the year. All but four of the state's 21 counties reported bear activity this year.
"The state's increasing and expanding black bear population presents serious wildlife management and public safety concerns," the lawyers wrote, adding that the state has called for the hunt as part of its bear management policy.
The hunt, the state's first in five years, is scheduled to start Monday and last through Dec. 11. Department spokesman Larry Ragonese said the agency anticipates 300 to 700 bears would be killed. In the 2005 hunt, 297 bears were killed.
The hunt would be confined to the state's seven northwesternmost counties. Hunters would be permitted to kill one bear each, regardless of the animal's age or gender. About 7,000 bear hunting permits are expected to be issued before Monday, and hunters are required to take a 90-minute safety/education course.
Animal rights groups filed court papers Wednesday to block the hunt.
The Animal Protection League of New Jersey and the Bear Education and Resource Group are trying to stop the hunt by challenging the bear management policy. A similar challenge succeeded in 2007 and no hunt was held.
An appellate panel is expected to rule soon, probably early Friday.
The activists argue that the bear management policy is arbitrary and was adopted in bad faith. They also challenge the policy on procedural grounds, contending that the administration failed to solicit public comments or conduct a proper public hearing before adopting it and approving the hunt.
The administration in its reply papers said the activists' challenge should be invalidated because they cannot show that the hunt will threaten the long-term viability of the black bear population, and their claims against the bear management policy are without merit.
The New Jersey Sierra Club objects to the hunt but is not part of the lawsuit.
The group's spokesman, Jeff Tittel, said humans and bears can coexist without a hunt "if appropriate measures are taken to protect wildlife habitat and educate the public."