WEST MILFORD — More than 100 demonstrators, including a few wearing bear costumes and carrying stuffed bears, protested Saturday on Route 23 at the corner of Canistear Road to oppose the upcoming bear hunt. Chanting "Kill the Hunt. Not the bears," and holding signs saying "Bullets are not science," the protesters stood on both sides of the highway encouraging motorists to honk their car horns in support.
The six-day hunt will start Dec. 5 and was approved last week by state Environmental Commissioner Bradley Campbell as a method to control the state's bear population. The last bear hunt was two years ago in which more than 300 bears were killed, which is what demonstration organizers are trying to prevent from happening again.
"This hunt is not necessary and it's not going to help," rally organizer Linda Smith said. "Seventy percent of nuisance complaints are preventable through education and garbage control. They have to enforce the feeding bans and garbage control."
Two representatives from Ted Nugent United Sportsmen of America attended the rally to support the hunt and to have their opinions heard, said Eric Bunk, the North New Jersey director of the organization.
"We came here to get our side of the story out," Bunk, 35, said. "I'm a hunter and we celebrate God's gift to humans in nature. Hurting animals is just a fact of life. In the grand scheme of things most hunters are humane and want the quickest and most humane kill. The fact is that our grocery stores are packed with dead animals"
More than a dozen anti-hunt protesters gathered around Bunk and another hunter and member of his organization, Bill Bender, and continued chanting "Kill the hunt. Not the bears." As chanting got progressively louder, organizers asked the protesters to back off.
The protest, organized by the Bear Education and Resource Group, lasted for more than two hours and drew a crowd from around the state. Some protesters drove for more than two hours to attend the demonstration, like Mary Burke, 62, who drove from Carney's Point to speak out against the hunt.
"People have to get over their fears of bears. They are not threatening monsters," she said. "There's a way to coexist with them."
The BEAR group is also organizing a letter-writing campaign and encouraging people to call the governor's office to complain.
"We've heard they are being bombarded with calls," said Angi Metler, a member of the BEAR group and local animal rights activist.
Metler said the site of the rally was chosen because she sees it as the heart of bear country. She said the demonstration was more successful than previous protests held at that site during the last bear hunt.
Many demonstrators came out to oppose hunting as a means to control the bear population, saying that bear-proof garbage cans and contraception programs for bears are better alternatives. Others said they wanted more research done on the number of bears in New Jersey and were concerned that not enough was being done to explore alternatives.
"I don't like to see bears killed," said Judy Fortenback, of Vernon. "This hunt is really for trophies. People want to put bear heads on their walls. Birth control and educating the public is more useful. I wish the officials would come up here and see what's really going on."
Bunk, of West Milford, who hunts with a bow and arrow, said it is his belief that bear hunting is a good way to control the bear population in New Jersey.
"Basically when the average American family can't even afford health insurance, it is heinous to give birth control to bears, when it's not even a proven method and doesn't work," he said.
A 9-year-old girl from Mahwah, Talia Durante, led the chanting at the rally for more than a half an hour and approached Bunk and Bender to ask them why they were afraid of bears.
"I'm not afraid," Bunk replied.
Durante and her mother, Sue, 39, attended the rally because they believe that the state Division of Fish and Wildlife is being unfair.
"We attended a meeting and so many people spoke out against (the hunt). It's just wrong," Sue Durante said.
The number of hunters that will participate in the hunt is still unknown. About 4,000 hunters applied for permits this year. The Division of Fish and Wildlife is making 3,000 permits, left over from last year's canceled hunt, available to hunters who completed a bear hunting training seminar.
According to the Division of Fish and Wildlife, a maximum of 10,000 bear-hunting permits could be issued, although it is unlikely that cap will be reached this year.