ANDOVER, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Bear hunters are fanning out across the state as New Jersey's latest state-mandated hunt got underway Monday.
Close to a dozen hunters were at the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area in Sussex County waiting to check in their bears before noon as about a half-dozen protesters gathered across the road.
Marc Beardslee was the first bear hunter to deliver his kill to the weigh station.
"Since we've had the hunt, I see more and more bears not less and less bears," Beardslee told 1010 WINS' Glenn Schuck. "They have the opportunity to protest, that's their right."
State officials estimate there are now about 3,500 bears in New Jersey north of Interstate 80, a region known as "bear country."
State wildlife officials tout the annual hunt as an important part of their bear management plan, saying it's needed to control the population and help protect the environment.
"Bears are dangerous, they need to eat and the only way they're going to find food is if they come into residential areas," another hunter said. "It's unsafe, for animals, kids."
In October, officials closed Ramapo Mountain State Forest in Bergen County after bears came too close to hikers. Last year, a hiker was killed by a bear in Passaic County while snapping pictures of the animal in a preserve in West Milford.
But the hunt continues to draw fire from animal activists and other critics who contend it's inhumane and not necessary.
"This is not about public safety, this is about trophy hunts," said Angi Metler of the Animal Protection League. "It doesn't do anything to protect public safety. There are other measures that do a better job."
"We need to appreciate nature instead of destroying nature," another protester said.
The state recently expanded the areas where hunting will be allowed during the six-day event. It is permitted this year in all or portions of Hunterdon, Passaic, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, and Warren counties, and portions of Bergen and Mercer counties.
Despite the warmer weather, only 8,200 of the state's 11,000 permits have been purchased by hunters, CBS2's Christine Sloan reported. The hunt will last a week.
Paul Miller brought his 9-year-old daughter Avery along to watch him shoot and kill a bear.
"She doesn't get scared deer hunting. There were three bears out there. One rain, she got a little nervous," Miller said.
Avery said that in spite of being scared by the bear she wants to hunt like her father, who fired his first weapon at the age of 8.
Hunters said that it is a sport, and they eat the bears they hunt. Some use food to lure the bears in. Others like Toni Toikka, who caught the biggest bear at almost 700 lbs, prep for it all year. He said it's not a trophy hunt.
"Nature's selection. He was old, and it is time to go," Toikka said.
Wildlife officials said despite the 5-year hunt, the bear population has remained flat. They said there have been too many bear and human encounters.
Last year, a bear killed a hiker in a Passaic county reserve.
"That was an errant bear. Most black bears are not aggressive," Carol Stanko, Division of Fish and Wildlife, DEP, said, "They do have the potential to be aggressive. They do break into homes, they do kill pets and kill livestock."
The hunt will last a week, and activists said they will be here everyday protesting.
New Jersey resumed state-regulated bear hunting in 2003 after more than 30 years.
Hunters harvested 272 bears during last year's hunt. The goal this year is 800.
This is the first year the state has the ability to extend the hunt if they do not meet their quota, WCBS 880's Kelly Waldron reported. If they do not make their goal, the possibility of extending the hunt for up to four days next week will be considered.
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