Bear hunters return to woods for 4th day, this time with guns (VIDEO)

FREDON — Bear hunters returned to the woods Thursday morning, the first day in which muzzleloader rifles were allowed in addition to archery.

Only bows and arrows were allowed during the first three days of this year’s hunt, in which 123 bears were killed — one-third of the total at this point last year, when the hunt similarly was limited to archery.

Hunters are defending the need for a hunt amid a sharp decline in the number of bears killed from last year’s record-setting total. Anti-bear hunt activists counter that fewer bears are being killed because of a dramatically reduced bear population.

Ray Szpond, president of the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, attributed the slow start to a rainy and unusually warm first day on Monday, in which only 26 bears were killed — eight times fewer than on opening day in 2016.

“The weather played a very strong factor,” said Szpond, who killed a bear Tuesday.

Szpond disputed bear hunt opponents who contend that previous hunts, which occurred every year under Gov. Chris Christie, have decimated the bear population.

“We stand behind the science of what the population is,” said Szpond, referring to estimates by state biologists of up to 2,800 bears north of Route 78 and west of Route 287.

New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel, a criitic of the hunt, countered Thursday that the low bear hunt totals so far suggest that the biologists missed the mark.

Reports of aggressive and nuisance bears declined significantly in the nine months leading up to the hunt, Tittel said in referencing to the DEP data.

A record 636 bears were killed in 2016.

“Maybe the population hasn’t recovered from last year’s hunt,” Tittel said.

At the busiest of the state’s five check stations, only one hunter, a Sparta resident, showed up during a two-hour span Thursday.

He drove up to the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area with a 169-pound female bear on the back of his truck, and said he shot it with a crossbow…

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