Two animal rights groups sued the state last year, challenging the bear management policy that allows an annual six-day hunt. The activists failed to stop last year's hunt, in which 592 black bears were killed, but the lawsuit was allowed to continue on its merits.
Doris Lin, a lawyer for the activists, said Thursday that an appeal to the state Supreme Court will be filed. This year's hunt is scheduled to start Monday.
"We're disappointed that the court disregarded the science and instead gave such deference to the Division of Fish and Wildlife as to effectively hold them above the law," Lin said. "The hunt is a trophy hunt, plain and simple. No state agency should be allowed to misrepresent their own science and push the agenda of a special-interest minority."
The state maintains the hunt is needed to keep the black bear population in check. Wildlife officials estimate the number of black bears in the state at around 3,400.
The Department of Environmental Protection commissioner said he was pleased by Thursday's ruling.
"This ruling affirms the science- and fact-based policy that we have adopted as part of a comprehensive approach to managing black bears in New Jersey," Bob Martin said. "The plan is a legitimate response to deal with a large black bear population and a resultant increase in public complaints about bear and human encounters. This is a public safety issue that requires responsible action by the state."
Last year's hunt was the first in five years.
The department has said the hunt allowed the black bear population to remain relatively stable, but Lin argued that a disproportionate number of pregnant bears were killed.
A similar legal challenge succeeded in 2007 and no hunt was held after a court found flaws with the management policy. That court said the 2005 hunt should not have taken place. A new policy has since been adopted.
In its most recent opinion, the court rejected the activists' claim that the population management policy was developed arbitrarily. The three-judge panel said repeatedly in their ruling that they defer to the agency that developed the document.
"While there may be disagreements as to available data and its interpretation, under our standard of review we defer to agency findings that are based on sufficient evidence in the record," the judges wrote.
Lin argued the policy was based on skewed data and should be invalidated.
For example, she said the number of bear complaints reported by the state rose in the years from 2007 to 2009, but that's only because data was collected from 32 police departments in 2009 but just 17 departments two years earlier.
The bear hunt is scheduled to run Monday through Dec. 10, concurrently with the state's six-day firearm deer hunting season. Bear hunting zones are in northwestern New Jersey, north of Interstate 78 and west of Interstate 287.
There is a limit of one bear per licensed and registered hunter.