The apparent death of Pedals, a black bear whose curious upright gait captivated social media users, has sparked renewed debates about New Jersey’s expanded bear hunting season.
The state’s annual black bear hunt has been lauded by hunters and wildlife officials, who argue that population control can prevent human-bear interactions. But some animal rights activists argue the hunt is inhumane, and plan to stage protests as the second segment of this year’s hunt begins on Monday.
“Here was one particular bear that people may have known, seen or just followed on Facebook. They felt a connection with Pedals,” said Janine Motta, programs director for the Bear Education And Resource (BEAR) program. “When he was killed, it became personal for those who loved him, and that translated into a greater awareness of the hunt in general and the realization that all bears who are killed are important.”
Wildlife officials believe Pedals was killed during the first phase of the 2016 hunt, in October. The bear, which was first caught on video about two years ago, walked on its hind legs because it had injured its front paws. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has released photos of a culled black bear with similarly injured paws, but the individual’s identity could not be confirmed because Pedals had never been tagged.
New Jersey’s hunt, which is one of 33 in the country, is a growing attraction for hunters in the region. But it wasn’t always that way – in fact, black bear hunting was banned in the state for 30 years before it was reinstated in 2003.
New Jersey is home to the densest black bear population in the country – wildlife officials estimate about 3,500, though there is some debate about the accuracy of that number. Proponents of annual hunt say that if the population outgrows its natural food sources, potentially dangerous bear-human interactions could follow.
“We’re putting science and data to use, it’s not willy-nilly,” Bob Considine, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, told The Christian Science Monitor in 2015. “We started with a five-year plan and the population hasn’t gone down. It's just science.”
But opponents say the bear hunt is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding about bear behavior. In 2015, the Monitor’s Story Hinckley reported:
When confronted by humans, black bears first instinct is to run away or climb a tree. In fact, BEAR cites bear expert Dr. Lynn Rogers who says that a person is 247 times more likely to be killed by lightning or 120 times more likely to be killed by a bee.
“It is an atrocity for a department that is supposed to look after the management of all wildlife to recommend this bear hunt,” Kathleen Schatzmann, the New Jersey state director for The Humane Society of the United States, told the Monitor in 2015. “To call it anything besides a trophy hunt is ridiculous.”
The second segment of this year’s hunt is a six-day window, scheduled to run through Saturday. But the season could end early if the state’s cull limit – 30 percent of previously tagged bears – is reached before then. Hunters have already killed more than 500 bears this year, and about 23.4 percent had already been tagged.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.