The last day of New Jersey's first bear hunt in five years is pointing toward a showdown of sorts between hunters and protesters.
The four-day total through Thursday of bagged bears was 477, with just 36 bears killed by hunters on the fourth day.
But NJ DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese is predicting that hunters will be out in force on Saturday, the last day, since it is the only weekend day of the hunt.
And bear advocates also plan to be out en masse. On Thursday, they won a deal brokered by Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin that will allow as many as 100 protesters at one of the five check-in stations Saturday.
(One protestor from New York was arrested on Monday by State Police, but there have been no other reports of confrontations since then.)
They have also been critical of Fish and Wildlife numbers, claiming that the stated goal of no more than 700 bears may really be as many as 1,000, based on statements by one F&W official.
That would amount to nearly a third of the bears estimated to live in bear country.
Meanwhile, the likelihood of an annual hunt under Governor Chris Christie is strong, but not guaranteed.
Ragonese said the state's Bear Management plan does call for annual hunts, but as for 2011, "We have not had any discussion on next year at this time."
Ragonese added, "That's a discussion we'll have early next year."
Ragonese explained that Fish and Wildlife scientists will go over all of the data from this hunt,. presumably including ratio of females to males, age, weight and range to determine the scope of next year's hunt, if it is indeed to be held.
But Ragonese said that even with a count that will likely be well over 500, Fish and Wildlife only expects the population in the northwestern third of the state to stabilize.
At this point, he said the focus is on "an effort to not let it grow" beyond the estimated 3400 bears that lived in the area before this six day hunt began.
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