Taking Back the Woods

Why we’ll be walking the trails again
during the week of the New Jersey bear hunt

WHEN THE BEAR HUNTS FIRST BEGAN IN 2003, MANY OF US WENT INTO THE WOODS OF WAWAYANDA. — No one asked us to go and no one really planned it. But we took it upon ourselves to walk the trails anyway. We all had our reasons. We hoped to somehow keep the hunters at bay. We wanted to keep them away from Sam, our beloved mascot bear. And we wanted, literally, to stand our ground. And so for days, we hiked the trails, stomping out tracks in the snow, and sealing our resolve. The woods were cold but the grief felt everytime shots were heard was worse. Despite it all, I know we wouldn’t have been anywhere else.

But then there were the arrests of 2005. An undercover cop teamed up with a hunter, probably a friend of his—and started an argument with some of our people, who were trying to save a bear from being shot. The hunter implied that our people could be armed and he pointed his shotgun at them. But instead of protecting our activists, the officer arrested Angi, Terry, Ali, and Janet. They were, in fact armed—but with a video camera.

A few days later we had our protest at the Wawayanda weigh station, which has now since been removed. There six more people—Dave, Lynda, Bill, Eleanor, Kristin, and myself—stepped over the flimsy orange snow fencing barricade set up by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and sat down on the ground. We were also armed—this time with posters and magic markers. With only 15 more minutes left of the protest—we too, were arrested.

At our trial, a cop from the NJDEP perjured himself, by saying that we “were violent”. I remember the panic I felt listening to him calmly tell this to the judge. Luckilly, we had video evidence that showed otherwise. After the judge saw our video, he realized that we were NOT violent. I remember him saying something about us being “nice” people but that we didn’t listen to the police. Our attorney argued that this was a freedom of speech issue and that our constitutional rights were violated. And then judge said that his courtroom wasn’t the place “to discuss the constitution.” And during Angi's trial, the judge did not allow into evidence the video of the hunter pointing his gun at them. In the end, we were all found guilty; the protestors of obstruction, and the trail walkers were found guilty of hunter harassment. We were each fined $500.

We realized how how unlikely it would be for any of us to ever get a fair trial in Sussex County. In the hunts that followed, there were always one or two people, Sue, Jean, who did walk the trails. But for the most part, we were dissuaded from going into the woods that we had not too long ago called our own.

Why am I telling you all this? Because as advocates for black bear protection, it’s part of our movement's history. And knowing our history makes all of us stronger.

But I’m also telling you this because things are different now...

After 15 years of educating the public, protesting, letter-writing, and getting over 25% of the New Jersey legislature to ask for humane bear management—the NJDEP lied about the tremendous support we have for bear protection—and the Christie administration ignored us, instead pandering to the hunter minority. And instead of enacting legitimate bear management, which includes proper garbage control and public education...the commissioner has enacted an additional 7 years of black bear trophy hunting; adding bow and arrow, allowing hunters shoot more that one bear, expanding the hunt zone, and extending the hunt time.

Dave, a long-time member (and 2005 arrestee) advocated going back into the woods. Others agreed. For our friends who will hold vigil at the weigh station next week; we know it’s not easy to see the hunters haul in the bodies of dead bears. I commend you...we all do. Bearing witness is a brave and powerful gesture, and we need you to be there. But some of us need to go back into the woods now. We think it’s time.

True, there won’t be many of us, but there will be enough. This is our form of protest, and we believe that our presence may save some bears from being shot. We’re aware that we may be targeted by the police or hunters. But the woods are ours, too, and we’ll be there with our bears till they stop shooting.

*** If we know you, and you’d like to walk with us, please write to me at: cathymccartney@yahoo.com