TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Fifty-five black bears were hunted and killed in New Jersey, on the first day of the state’s controversial hunt.

As CBS 2’s Christine Sloan reported, the six-day hunt aims to control the state’s black bear population, now estimated at about 2,900.

State environmental officials say New Jersey’s two-year-old black bear management program, which includes the hunt, trash management and education, has reduced the bear population and the number of bear-human interactions.

1010 WINS’ Glenn Schuck reports

“It’s working very well. So far over the past three years, we’ve reduced bear-human encounters by about 43 percent,” said Larry Ragonese with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “We’re finding less nuisance complaints from the public.”

Eddie, who shot and killed a bear Monday, said he put a lot of time into the hunt.

“We’ve been doing a lot of scouting over the last couple of weeks, and we know where they are running,” he said.

But the hunt Monday drew hundreds of angry protesters.

“That’s no sport,” said protester Lou Vellucci. “It really is, it’s a trophy hunt. It’s not a hunt. It’s a massacre.”

“I find it disgusting,” said protester Debra Lucas. “It’s called the Garden State and one of things I’m proud of is that we have things like bears in the state.”

WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman reports

“Every animal has a right to live,” protester Jerry Mandel said. “You talk about peace and justice here in America, but we don’t extend it to animals and until we extend it to animals you’re never going to have peace, freedom and justice.”

“They’re actually shooting little cubs,” a protester from Wayne told WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman.

“How about offing the cubs in front of their mom, watching their mother pass out with a painful death,” said another protester.

State officials said there is no age restriction.

“They’re looking for meat, they’re looking for fur. They’ll make rugs and so forth out of them,” Ragonese told Silverman.

Emotions ran high on both sides Monday, and one protester was arrested right after speaking to CBS 2.

“Because of this hunt, cubs will be left orphans,” said protester Bill Crane. “Mothers will lose their babies.”

Hunter Stanley Zeveney, who brought his small children along on the hunt, defended his actions before the protesters.

“They have the right (to protest), like it’s my right to hunt,” he said.

But protester Angie Melter called bringing children on the hunt the equivalent of “teaching babies to kill babies.”

Protesters said their larger point is that the state is sponsoring what they call a recreational trophy hunt.

But state officials said the hunt is allowed as a way to thin the bear population.

“You have a start by reducing the numbers of bears, the only known way to do that is hunting,” said Ragonese.

State officials said complaints have dropped along with bear-related incidents, and the hunt must continue for several years to control the bear population.

Zeveney wants his son to shoot down a bear when he was a teenager.

“I like it – steak,” the boy said.

What angers the protesters most is cubs being killed, and the practice of baiting – throwing around food to attract bears. Both practices are legal in New Jersey.

A New Jersey lawmaker has introduced legislation that would stop the practice of baiting, and force people in bear country to buy bear-proof trash cans – a precaution that protesters say could eliminate the need for hunting.

But earlier this year, the New Jersey Supreme Court said it would not consider a case challenging the annual hunt. The case was filed by the Animal Protection League of New Jersey and the Bear Education and Resource Group.

“People don’t care how many bears there are,” said Doris Lin with the Bear Education and Resource Group. “What they care about is bears coming into their back yard, coming into their neighborhood and knocking over trash cans and destroying bird feeders and things like that and the hunt will not solve that problem.”

Ed Wharton, a hunter from Poughkeepsie, called it a professional sport that is heavily regulated.

“You just can’t go shoot as many bears are you want,” he said. “The majority of hunters are respectful of all the laws and are also respectful of the animals in general.”

Last year, more than 9,000 permits were issued and 469 bears were killed.

Hunting is allowed north of Interstate 78 and west of Interstate 287.

(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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