GOP lawmaker confronts DEP on bear hunt during budget hearing

GOP lawmaker confronts DEP on bear hunt during budget hearing

TRENTON, N.J. – Assemblyman Hal Wirths grilled Department of Environmental Protection Acting Commissioner Shawn LaTourette on the increasingly dangerous bear activity during Wednesday’s Assembly budget hearing.

WATCH: GOP lawmaker confronts DEP on bear hunt during budget hearing

Wirths: “Do you know if the increased sightings in your department resulted in an increase in damage and nuisance reports?”

LaTourette: “Off the top of my head, sir, I do not.”

Wirths: “Do you trust the Division of Fish and Wildlife when they say that ending the bear hunt puts lives in danger?”

LaTourette: “I don’t know them to have said that, sir.”

The exchange between the two followed a similar pattern for nearly 10 minutes as LaTourette appeared unprepared and unable to answer any questions related to bear reports or the controversial hunt.

Wirths recounted his personal recent bear encounters and cited numbers from the N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife’s 2020 summary on black bear incidents that noted a 70 percent increase in sightings and nuisance reports compared to 2019. There was a 33 percent increase in the destruction of farmers’ crops, a 60 percent increase in home entries and a 25 percent increase in aggressive attacks. Every county in the state, with exception of Cape May, reported black bear activity.

“It doesn’t seem like you have any information to add to anything on a major topic,” said Wirths (R-Sussex). “My concern is that the administration is prioritizing the lives of animals over the safety of the people.”

In January 2018, just days before Gov. Phil Murphy took office, a report from state wildlife officials said that ending the bear hunt could cause New Jersey’s bear population to double by 2022. Despite the warning, the governor ordered state-owned lands, including parks, forests and wildlife management areas, be closed to bear hunting for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Murphy has pushed to ban the hunt altogether – a plan he said can be accomplished when the state’s Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy expires later this spring.

“It’s extremely naive to think that the doubling of the population isn’t going to present a safety issue. We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of incidents and we’ve had an incident where somebody was killed,” Wirths explained.

In 2014, a 22-year-old Rutgers University student was mauled to death by a black bear while hiking with friends in the Apshawa Preserve in Passaic County. Subsequent reports found the bear was not rabid or starving, although the animal was found to have ingested both clothing and flesh.

“This is a crisis that Governor Murphy and your agency are going to create and be responsible for,” said Wirths.

Last summer, an 82-year-old West Milford man needed more than 30 stitches after a bear attack in his garage.

“The governor has said many, many times, ‘Let’s follow the science.’ Whether it’s Covid, whether it’s lead in the water or lead in the pipes, let’s follow the science. Why the hell aren’t we following the science here? I don’t think we should just follow the science when it’s convenient,” concluded Wirths. “We should follow the science all the time.”