First published in The Record on Dec. 9, 2017
AT bear hunt, enemies find grudging respect
It was still dark outside when Tommy Cinque loaded three fat green shells into the belly of his Benelli 12-gauge shotgun. He pulled his orange hat low to keep the cold off his forehead and started walking north, uphill, into the woods.
Six hours earlier, at midnight, a full-sized black bear had walked this hillside. Cinque knew this because he’d strapped a motion-activated camera to a nearby tree stump, and the camera had automatically taken pictures of the bear and texted them to his phone.
So Cinque hiked in and positioned himself as close to the place the bear was spotted as allowed by law, in a clearing at the top of the hill. There was no cover, and no place to hide.
“I find, ethically, it’s good to be closer when we harvest an animal,” said Cinque, 48, a retired Newark police sergeant who was participating in what is likely be the final bear hunt organized by the state of New Jersey for the foreseeable future. “Because when you have to take a shot, you make sure it’s in the kill zone so the animal doesn’t suffer.”
The same morning, Bill Crane was 100 miles away, at his home near Poughkeepsie. He was feeling nervous. Crane, a former Teaneck resident, has been arrested eight times for protesting the bear hunt. This January, he spent eight days in the Sussex County jail for civil disobedience during a protest. He was arrested again in October.
Crane must appear in court on Dec. 20. This time he fears his long arrest record may result in an even longer jail sentence.
“It is stressful, to tell you the truth, awaiting jail,” said Crane, 73. “I don’t really want to go back to jail. But I feel it’s necessary to show how seriously a lot of us feel about the suffering” of bears caused by the hunt.
Familiarity, and grudging respect
Starting in 2000, when Gov. Christine Todd Whitman authorized the state's first bear hunt in three decades, and every year since 2010, when Gov. Chris Christie revived it after a five-year hiatus, animal welfare activists and hunters have fought over the best way to control the state's bear population and reduce the incidence of dangerous interactions between bears and people.
Sportsmen argue that hunting is best. Animal lovers contend that reducing the availability of human food, primarily by limiting suburban sprawl in bear country and forcing homeowners to use bear-proof garbage cans, works better. Each side claims to be supported by the preponderance of scientific evidence.
Hunters and hunt protesters may never agree to a compromise about bears. But at the heart of the noisy debate over the bear hunt lie three quiet truths:
Both sides believe their actions will reduce the suffering of bears.
In a busy urban state like New Jersey, few people hunt, and only a few protest. Over seven years of hunts, many of these people got to know each other, sometimes by name.
And many view their opponents with respect, however grudging.
“Look, I know where they’re coming from,” Cinque said of the protesters. “Bears are really cute. They don’t want these animals to suffer, and neither do I.”
“I mean I’m sure they’re nice guys,” Crane said of the hunters and workers at the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, many of whom actively support the hunt. “Some of them are friendly as individuals. We just have a very different view on hunting.”
This is not the bear hunt story one usually sees on social media or TV news. Most coverage of the hunt focuses on the visceral, wrenching scene that unfolds every hunt at check stations operated by the Division of Fish and Wildlife.
On one side is a bear — cute, bloody, dead — getting lifted from the bed of a pickup by a spindly green crane.
On the other side are protesters who scream things like “Liars, liars, liars!” Occasionally they chase departing hunters, yelling obscenities.
It appears that scenes like this are about to stop, at least for the foreseeable future. After seven years of bear hunts under Christie, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy said this week he will stick by his campaign promise to declare a moratorium on the hunt in 2018. He will direct state agencies to study non-lethal methods of controlling the bear population and limiting potentially dangerous interactions with humans.
Meanwhile, the final hunt of the Christie administration has been an unexpected anticlimax. This week’s protests were smaller than recent ones at the Whittingham bear check station in Sussex County.
Turnout among hunters seemed lower, too. Leaders of the fish and wildlife division set a goal for the October and December hunts for hunters to kill at least 27 bears that previously had been handled and tagged. By Friday, a day before the hunt was due to end, they were nine kills short, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the agency. If the goal isn’t met by sundown on Saturday, Hanja said, the agency may extend the hunt by four days.
Hanja supports the bear hunt. He attributes the controversy to New Jersey’s “small activist community and a highly saturated media market.”
And when asked about Murphy’s planned moratorium, Hajna chooses his words with extreme care.
“I can’t comment on what the incoming administration will do,” he said. “I’m certain the Division of Fish and Wildlife will provide the governor’s new administration all the scientific data that it needs as it works to understand this issue.”
Strategy, with restraint
Cinque sat on a yellow bucket and waited for the bear to appear. Tree branches cracked in the distance. Cinque’s eyelids lit up, but he kept his camouflaged shotgun resting against his right inner thigh.
The woods fell silent. As the gibbous moon fell to the west and the eastern sky turned from black to gray, Cinque relaxed. Unlike previous hunts, when the bears often appeared just before sunrise, he said, this time they were coming at midnight and in the afternoon.
“I don’t think we’re going to see anything now,” he said.
As Cinque’s attention wandered from the pile of turkey, molasses and strawberry jelly that he had set as bait at the bottom of the hill, he grew more talkative. He laughed about the protesters, including Crane, whom he knows by sight.
“It’s always the same 20 people,” he said. “What do you think getting arrested is going to do? How about all the kids that go to bed hungry every night? How about you go protest that?”
Cinque sat a few miles west of Andover, on a 20-acre section of land owned by a friend. When it was clear no bears would appear, he stood up and led two visitors on a tour. The hill rose to the east, eventually forming a cliff on one side of a shallow valley. Bears use the rocky walls on both sides of the valley for their winter dens, Cinque said. Behind the opposite cliff stood a recycling center that attracts bears every night.
From here the valley narrows from the northeast to the southwest. Bears wandering its floor are naturally directed back to the tight little clearing a half-mile away, where Cinque placed his bait.
If there is a better place in New Jersey to hunt bears, Cinque doesn’t know of it.
“I like the whole strategy” of hunting, he said. “You’ve got to out-think the animal.”
On the tour, Cinque passed a boxy camouflaged tent tied to some skinny trees at the edge of the cliff. Cinque and his friends use the tent as cover during deer season, but the idea of using it to hunt bear is repugnant, he said. Shooting bears so close to their dens is illegal. It’s also unsportsmanlike and inhumane, he said.
“We’re hunters,” Cinque said, as the bare tree trunk beside him turned yellow with sunrise. “We’re not killers.”