Even as the latest count shows 426 bears killed in New Jersey's first bear hunt in five years, former Department of Environmental Protection(DEP) Commissioner Mark Mauriello told NBCNewYork in an exclusive interview that he has serious questions about the science that led to this hunt.
"I'm not a hunter, I'm hunting neutral," Muriello said on the second day of the hunt.
Mauriello said he is impartial, noting that "I am not a vegetarian" and that a hunt can be a "reasonable tool." But he questions whether the hunt is based on facts or faulty reports of bear sightings.
So far, more bears have been killed on this hunt than in recent years. On the first day 264 bears were bagged, and by late afernoon Tuesday, another 77 bears were brought in to the state's five checkpoints.
That two day total surpasses the entire number taken in both the 2003 and 2005 hunts, and there are still 4 days to go.
Nonetheless, Muriello had doubts about whether the rise in bear complaint statistics to justify the hunt is based in reality.
The DEP's Fish and Wildlife Division said complaints have risen sharply and that this week's hunt will "stabilize" the bear population.
"I always questioned how we could verify to be sure the calls were real," Muriello said in describing his discomfort in using phone calls as scientific evidence.
Earlier this Fall, Rutgers Professor Ed Tavss said his painstaking review of two years worth of complaints showed hundreds of cases of double counting -- a finding disputed by the DEP in its own audit.
Mauriello , whoworked his way up to Commissioner in the administration of Democrat Jon Corzine after 30 years with the DEP, also questioned his department's own efforts to educate people living in bear country.
During his time as Deputy Commissioner and in the top job, he said his compliance officers would report 99% compliance with guidelines calling, for example, with restaurants and convenience stores to use bear proof dumpsters.
But when he took a trip into bear country, he saw little evidence of that compliance.
"I just find it a little tough ot believe that anything in this world is 99% compliant anywhere," Mauriello said in explaining why he felt non-lethal methods were not fully pursued by staff at his agency.
The current Administration has stenuously defended its actions while admitting that bear-proof measures are "not mandatory."
And Governor Chris Christie Tuesday defended his agency, saying "I have absolute confidence in the Commissioner of the DEP(Bob Martin) that he presented me with sound reasons scientifically-based for why this is an important program to go forward."