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President, Assoc. of NJ Rifle & Pistol Clubs

  

 

New Jersey’s Bear Management Problem: Public Safety Hazard and State Liability Risk

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This picture of a sow and three of her five cubs was taken from Scott Bach’s home in rural Newfoundland NJ. as the bears prowled through his driveway. After a confrontation with a black bear while out hiking nearby, he became a leading advocate for reinstatement of a limited hunt.


 

There is a very real and extremely dangerous black bear overpopulation problem occurring in New Jersey, and the State has neither timely nor appropriately addressed it to date. In the absence of immediate bear population reduction measures, fatal or near-fatal bear attacks are inevitable. There is also a state liability concern in addition to the public safety aspect of the issue, as state liability in bear attacks is a new area of litigation that could subject New Jersey to significant liability if the State fails to effectively or timely address the problem.

Contrary to popular belief, black bear are not always benevolent. They can exhibit predatory behavior, and they have been attacking humans and domesticated animals in North America with increasing and alarming frequency. There is a documented and growing trend of aggressive, unprovoked and predatory behavior by black bear toward humans. According to one well known and respected bear authority in the United States, Stephen Herrero, two-thirds of all fatal black bear attacks occurring during the last 100 years occurred within approximately the past 30 years (see article, “Fatal Injuries Inflicted to People by Black Bear”, proceedings of the Fifth Western Black Bear Workshop, p. 75). This trend is the result of increasing human encroachment into and development of bear habitat, in combination with increasingly mild winters which no longer check population growth. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the frequency of contact between humans and bear.

Within the past two years, there have been several fatal or near-fatal black bear attacks in relatively close proximity to New Jersey. In 2002, a black bear snatched an infant from its carriage in New York’s Catskill’s region, apparently as intended food. The infant was horribly mauled and died. On July 2, 2000, a 24-year old female biathlete was attacked and killed by a black bear while training on a course near Quebec City, Canada (see International Bear News, 08/00, at p. 23). On May 22, 2000, an experienced hiker was mauled and killed by a black bear in Tennessee while waiting for her husband to return from a 1-hour side trip to go fishing. The husband returned to find the bear and its cub feeding at her body (International Bear News, 08/00, at p. 24). The bear had previously been tagged by the applicable division of fish and wildlife. On June 4, 2001, a black bear chased down, killed, and ate an 18-year old high school student in Canada. On August 28, 2001, an 81-year old woman was mauled by a black bear in her home in the Adirondack Mountains

Closer to home, there have been numerous black bear attacks throughout Northern New Jersey over the past several years, some of them serious. On June 29 2001, a young boy was mauled by a black bear while hiking with his family near the Delaware Water Gap. The bear had stalked the group for several hours before attacking. On August 28, 2001, a 500-lb. black bear chased an 8-year old boy near his home in West Milford and was deterred only by an intervening police officer whose 3 shots fired into the animal did not stop it but rather caused it to retreat into the woods. And on May 18, 2002, a hiker was attacked by a black bear in pursuit of food near the Delaware Water Gap.

A recent case in Arizona should serve as the ultimate warning, especially to states such as New Jersey that have had the opportunity to address their bear overpopulation problems but have not done so adequately or timely. In 1996, a 16-year old girl was mauled by a black bear while on a 4H outing near Tucson, Arizona. The bear had previously been tagged and relocated by the state fish and game division -- both of which procedures are key components of New Jersey’s current bear management plan. The relocated bear returned to its place of origin many miles away, mauling and disfiguring the teenage girl for life. The State of Arizona settled a 15 million dollar lawsuit by the girl for $2.5 million. 

In the victim’s lawsuit against the state, bear expert Herrero gave a deposition in which he recanted a conclusion stated in his seminal 1985 book to the effect that black bear were essentially benevolent. Stated Herrero under oath:

I do think that there is more danger than I realized from food conditioned, habituated, and aggressive bears, the combination of the three. And if I were rewriting that chapter, I would emphasize that there are three ingredients, habituations, the food conditioning, and rewarding aggressive behavior over time that increased the chances of injury... . I have learned since the publication of the book that there is more involvement in serious injuries by black bears than I knew of at the time that I wrote the book. (Knochel v. State, Arizona Superior Court, Civ. No. 98-09396, Deposition of Stephen Herrero, January 6, 1999, at pp. 218-219)

This lawsuit established a precedent for individuals to bring suit against a state in bear attacks where the state has not appropriately or timely addressed a known problem. In this Arizona case, the tagging and relocation of a bear by the state was insufficient to bar the lawsuit. If tagging and relocation are to be the heart of New Jersey’s bear management program, then the State is setting itself up for significant liability the next time a bear attacks here. Tagging does not reduce bear population, and relocation just moves the problem, and in many instances the bear return to their origin even over great distances. Sterilization programs, which have been discussed but not implemented, are expensive and take many years to impact an overpopulation problem. A limited hunt designed to achieve specific conservation goals, unlike tagging, relocation and sterilization, would have an immediate and lasting impact on the overpopulation problem. Also, not only would it not tap the State’s limited financial resources, but it actually would generate revenue for the State from increased hunting license fees.

In 2000, a limited bear hunt scheduled by the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife was cancelled when then-Governor Whitman bowed to pressure from a small but vocal minority of animal activists and in turn pressured the Division into canceling the hunt. In so doing, New Jersey essentially indicated that it was willing to risk the lives and safety of its citizens while it experimented with a program of tagging and relocation – a program that has already been demonstrated ineffective elsewhere. The potential liability to the State for blocking a limited hunt is enormous. Limited hunting is a proven and cost-effective method for wildlife population control, and is used by the State regularly as part of its conservation management program for other, apparently less valued, forms of wildlife. The deliberate blocking of a scheduled hunt in light of the documented and growing risk to public safety could be cast as gross negligence, or perhaps even recklessness, should the first bear attack lawsuit presents itself in New Jersey.

The prompt reinstitution of a limited bear hunt would provide a cost-effective, revenue-generating method of immediately addressing public safety risks while reducing the State’s potential liability to victims of attacks.

—Scott L. Bach