Pennsylvania bear managers bracing for overflow New Jersey bears to relocate here
“Why did the bear cross the river?”
Residents of northeastern Pennsylvania are likely to be asking that variation of a well-known childhood joke in coming years after New Jersey’s governor bans bear hunting.
The answer, according to Game Commission bear biologist Mark Ternent, is, “because they want to – and because they can.”
The Delaware River is not a barrier for bear movement, he explained, and the harvest of tagged bears in both states for years has shown that bears routinely cross back and forth between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“There’s a lot of public ground in the Delaware State Forest and Delaware Water Gap areas, along the river in Pennsylvania, and there are also some game lands in that side of Pike County,” Ternent said.
“We know that bears, if they get crowded in New Jersey, will likely spill over into that area in eastern Pennsylvania.”
The spectre of bear overpopulation arose after New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in late August ordered the closure of state lands to black bear hunting this year. His executive order partially fulfills his campaign promise to end bear hunting in the Garden State.
The first-year Democratic governor stopped short of unilaterally ending the hunt altogether, saying he doesn’t have the authority, but he called on lawmakers to take action to stop bear hunting on private property, too.
New Jersey wildlife managers have estimated that about 3,500 bears live in northern New Jersey, and some claim that New Jersey has the densest bear population on the continent.
New Jersey resumed regulated bear hunting in 2003 after a roughly 30-year ban. Another hunt was held in 2005. In 2010, under Republican Gov. Chris Christie, the state made it annual, with 409 bears taken last year. State wildlife managers have said the annual hunt is a key part of controlling the bear population, and limiting confrontations with humans.
Ternent sees the ban as “disappointing,” but he chose his words carefully. He expects the action to be felt in Pennsylvania, which is already home to an estimated 20,000 black bears – and that’s despite an annual hunter harvest of more than 3,000.
“We don’t judge New Jersey’s policies and they don’t judge ours, but we certainly support the use of regulated hunting when the data says it is sustainable,” he said.
“And everything that I have seen out of New Jersey suggests that is the case, so we support the use of regulated hunting as a tool in that state. There just aren’t a lot of other tools to use for bears if you don’t use hunting.”
Ternent suggested that Gov. Murphy is setting his state up for problems, and New Jersey’s recent experience with bears seems to support that. Bear complaints went down 56 percent between 2016 and late 2017, state data show, after former Gov. Christie reinstated bear hunting.
The N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife released a report in January concluding that the bear population could double by 2022 if bear hunting ended. Many of those bears are likely to come here, Ternent warned.
“How much will New Jersey’s bear population have to grow until bears crossing the river happens at a higher rate — that is hard to say,” he said.
“We have a lot of good bear habitat right up against the Delaware River in the eastern part of the state. So it makes sense to assume that if the bear population becomes increasingly dense in New Jersey, they are going to travel in our direction.”
Under another governor or another administration, bear hunting may well be reinstituted, Ternent pointed out. “It’s a shame that politics got in the middle of this.”