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By Bill Wichert June 10, 2011

New Jersey Sierra Club claims state loses from 8,000 to 10,000 acres annually to development in “bear country”

The ongoing dispute between the New Jersey Sierra Club and state officials goes beyond whether the state should host another bear hunt this year. It’s also about how they each define "bear country."

To the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, "bear country" refers to where the December 2010 hunt took place in seven northern New Jersey counties. To New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel, "bear country" extends to bear habitats in points further south.

The questions surrounding "bear country" stem from the Sierra Club’s recent comments regarding habitat loss. In a press release opposing another hunt this year, the Sierra Club offered a list of ways to manage New Jersey’s bear population, including "protecting habitat."

"Every year the state loses 8,000-10,000 acres of land in bear country," according to a May 17 press release. "The more we build houses in the middle of the woods where bears live, the more conflict we will see between bears and humans."

That estimate of acreage loss caught the attention of PolitiFact New Jersey, especially since New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country.

Whether the Sierra Club’s numbers are accurate hinges on that original question -- where is "bear country?"

First, let’s start with how the Sierra Club arrived at its habitat loss figures.

Tittel told us in an email that the Sierra Club’s estimate was based on annual land losses compiled through the the Grant F. Walton Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis at Rutgers University.

In his email, Tittel said the Sierra Club looked at the "Northern and Western Counties of NJ that have Bears." By acres lost, Tittel said he was referring to acres developed and fragmented by development, such as the impacts to the edge of a forested area.

But when PolitiFact New Jersey examined the recent research done by the center, the Sierra Club’s numbers didn’t add up -- at least when looking at the seven counties where the 2010 bear hunt occurred.

Between 2002 and 2007, the combined urban growth in those seven counties totaled 4,780 acres per year -- not the 8,000-to-10,000 figure cited by the Sierra Club, according to a July 2010 report from the center director and another professor.

But the total impact on bear habitat goes beyond just the number of acres developed, said Rowan University associate professor John Hasse, who co-authored the July 2010 report. Each acre developed affects wildlife habitat in the surrounding area, Hasse said.

The Sierra Club misfired in terms of growth where the 2010 bear hunt occurred, but Tittel told PolitiFact New Jersey that "bear country" -- there’s that phrase again! -- is larger than where the hunt took place.

Tittel argued that sizable bear populations also exist in four other counties not included in the 2010 hunt. When combining the annual growth rates in those counties with the figures from the counties where the 2010 hunt occurred, the new total is 8,806 acres per year, according to the center’s report.

"Bear Country is where there are (breeding) populations and good habitat, not where there is a hunt," Tittel wrote in a May 23 email.

But DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said "bear country" should be defined as where last year’s hunt occurred. The bear population has been the most predominant in northwest New Jersey, he said.

Yet DEP records back up Tittel’s point that bears can be found outside of where the hunt was held.

Bears can find suitable habitats in southern parts of New Jersey, and the most recent DEP statistics show bear activity in seven counties not included in the 2010 hunt.

Despite the questions surrounding acreage loss estimates, the Sierra Club correctly states that habitat loss will lead to greater conflicts between bears and humans. Development creates easier access to food for the bruins, increasing their birth rate and survivability, said Larry Katz, a professor of animal sciences at Rutgers University.

"We move into an area and we create more habitat," Katz said. "They’re not frightened off by us."

Before we give the Sierra Club its rating on the Truth-O-Meter, let’s remember something about all that land being lost to development -- construction activity has taken a sharp downturn in New Jersey and across the country.

According to a report prepared by the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development, the number of residential building permits authorized in New Jersey decreased by about 50 percent from 25,400 in 2007 to 12,396 in 2009.

Back to the Sierra Club’s statement, let’s review:

The environmental organization said between 8,000 and 10,000 acres annually is lost to development in "bear country," citing the research done by the Grant F. Walton Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis.

But in the counties where the 2010 bear hunt was held, the center’s research pegged growth at 4,780 acres per year. When you throw in figures from other counties mentioned by Tittel, the acreage loss fits within the 8,000-10,000 range in the Sierra Club’s original statement. State records show bear activity in counties outside of last year’s hunting areas.

One professor acknowledged that the loss of bear habitat goes beyond the number of acres developed. The Sierra Club’s underlying point -- habitat loss leads to more bear-human conflicts -- also is in line with the perspective of an animal sciences professor.

Still, the Sierra Club’s argument about the pace of development is undercut by the decline in construction activity statewide.

We rate the statement Half True.

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Our Sources

New Jersey Sierra Club press release, "UnBEARable: NJ Going for Another Bear Hunt," emailed May 17, 2011

Email interviews with Jeff Tittel, New Jersey Sierra Club, May 17-24, 2011

Grant F. Walton Center for Remote Sensing & Spatial Analysis at Rutgers University, "Changing Landscapes in the Garden State: Urban Growth and Open Space Loss in NJ 1986 thru 2007,"accessed May 17, 2011

Email interview with Richard Lathrop, Rutgers University, May 20, 2011

Email interview with John Hasse, Rowan University, May 20, 2011

Interview with Larry Katz, Rutgers University, May 20, 2011

2010 Black Bear Hunting Season Information, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, accessed May 23, 2011

Interview with Larry Ragonese, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, May 23, 2011

Bear activity report for Jan. 1-May 20, provided by Larry Ragonese on May 23, 2011

U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2007 National Resources Inventory, accessed May 23, 2011

Email from J. Jeffery Goebel, U.S. Department of Agriculture, May 23, 2011

2010 Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy
, accessed May 24, 2011

New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development, Residential Building Permits Authorized 2000-2009, accessed May 24, 2011

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New Jersey Sierra Club claims state loses from 8,000 to 10,000 acres annually to development in “bear country”

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