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Bear hunt begins with kills recorded, tempers high
12/5/2005, 2:41 p.m. ET
The Associated Press

VERNON, N.J. (AP) — Braving freezing cold and irate animal rights activists, camouflage-clad bear hunters hit the fields and forests here Monday, taking aim at a species whose recovery in New Jersey has gone from conservation success to emerging public safety threat.

Black bears have rebounded from near-extinction to become familiar sights across the nation's most densely populated state — rummaging through trash, menacing people and scampering through yards. With residents' complaints mounting, New Jersey's second bear hunt in 35 years was approved as a way to thin their ranks.

"Bears are beautiful animals, but they've got to be controlled," said Joe Giunta, 59, of Frankfurt, who bagged one Monday morning.

No count of bears killed was immediately available. State officials said daily counts would be given throughout the six-day season, beginning later Monday.

The hunt, restricted to a vast swath of northwestern New Jersey and open to 4,434 hunters with permits, went off as scheduled after surviving a late court challenge Friday.

"It's an emotional issue," said Martin McHugh, director of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, which estimates the bear population at between 1,600 and 3,200. Bears have been spotted in each of New Jersey's 21 counties, but are concentrated in the area of the state where the hunt was taking place.

About a dozen hunt opponents gathered at a weigh station at Wawayanda State Park on Monday, confronting hunters and forming "bear rescue teams" with plans to tend to wounded bears and follow hunters in what they said was a mission of mercy.

"Today, for us, is a very sad day," said Lynda Smith, president of Bear Education and Research, one of two groups that unsuccessfully sued to delay the hunt. "They're here to kill them, we're here to help them."

Proponents rejected arguments that bear-proof trash cans and "aversive conditioning" — such as using fireworks to scare bears away from populated areas — would work better than a hunt.

"No matter where they eat, they're still going to reproduce," said Andy Romanelli, 36, of Dumont. "The facts are the facts. They're overpopulated."

Eager to get an early start, hunters in trucks lined up at the eastern exit to the park, waiting for the gate to be opened so they could drive in. With snow on the ground and temperatures in the teens, they ventured into the woods — packing shotguns or muzzleloader rifles, layered clothing, tree stands and provisions for themselves.

Successful hunters had to negotiate a gauntlet of TV news cameras and reporters on their way to the weigh station, where the kills were registered and a wildlife biologist inspected the carcasses.

Giunta and his hunting partner bagged two. Emerging from the weigh station, he stopped briefly to talk to reporters and let photographers shoot pictures of the bears. One's face looked frozen in a half-grimace; the other was lying on its side, gutted.

"This won't go to waste," said Giunta. "It'll get eaten. And if I can afford it, I'll have someone make it into a rug."

Some hunters had no luck.

"I saw more hunters than anything, that's why I got frustrated and came out," said Chris Strabone, 28, of Park Ridge, a police officer who took the week off so he could hunt.

While the hunt was scheduled to last through nightfall Saturday, the state could call it off if it is satisfied that enough bears have been killed. In the last hunt, two years ago, 328 bears were killed.

"It's a slaughter of innocent black bears," said Ken Vassilatos, 47, of Pine Bush, N.Y., who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of a cub and a female bear, both with tears in their eyes. Many protesters wore bright orange shirts, the same color required to be worn by hunters.

Hunt opponent Ann Ilkiw planned to accompany Vassilatos into the woods to help the animals. "We'll carry them out if we have to. We'll take pictures and make sure people see the horror of it," Ilkiw said.

The bear hunt critics plan a formal protest Saturday, but they had no permit for one Monday, so state park police Lt. Kelly Gottheiner told them to put the signs — which read "Stop the Innocent Bear Slaughter" and "Sportsmen?? Cub Killers!" — away.

The opponents complied, but then complained about a sign on a hunter's truck that read "Support the Bear Hunt" and pulled it off the vehicle, drawing a rebuke from the officer.
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