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Appellate court judges decided late Wednesday to expedite a hearing schedule on whether state lands should be open to bear hunting in December, with a possible decision coming early next month.

The new schedule came just hours after the state Attorney General's Office filed its arguments against a quickened schedule and summed up its opposition to an appeal filed by three hunter-based groups that are fighting the ban on bear hunting on state-managed lands.

Doug Burdin, in-house counsel for Safari Clubs International, one of the three plaintiffs, told the New Jersey Herald early Wednesday evening of the judges' decision.

He said the judges set a schedule that gives the state until Friday to file its formal arguments on why Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe has the authority to ban bear hunting on state-owned and managed lands, such as parks, forests and wildlife management areas.

The Safari Club, New Jersey Outdoor Alliance and Sportsmen's Alliance lawyers will have until Tuesday to respond. Another round of filings has a state deadline of Nov. 4, and hunter groups a deadline of noon Nov. 5 to reply.

The judges will then decide if they have enough paperwork to decide the case or go to oral arguments by phone at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 7.

Such a schedule, with the appellate decision coming on or just after Nov. 7, would give either side a chance to go to the state Supreme Court.

The December segment of the 2018 bear hunt is scheduled for Dec. 3-8, with a possible extension of Dec. 15-18.

The hunters' groups had appealed McCabe's order and, on Monday, asked the court for an expedited hearing schedule. The court gave its permission to seek an agreement from the state. On Wednesday, the state Attorney General's Office filed arguments opposing the request for an expedited hearing.

The judges, however, decided later in the day to go ahead with a quicker hearing schedule.

At issue is the Aug. 30 departmental order by McCabe banning hunting on state lands.

She was following through on Gov. Phil Murphy's order to her 10 days earlier to take the action since, according to the governor's office, he did not have the power to completely stop the bear hunt.

In his campaign last year, Murphy promised anti-hunting advocates he would halt the bear hunt, which is held for six days in October for archery and for another six days in December for shotguns.

The December hunt coincides with the annual six-day shotgun season for deer; however, there is no restriction on hunting deer on state lands in McCabe's order.

The state's response filed Wednesday says, "The (hunter groups') appeal raises no issue of great public importance that must be resolved prior to the December hunt."

It also noted that Murphy's order was issued in Aug. 20, McCabe's order came 10 days later, and it wasn't until more than a month after that -- early October -- when the appeal of McCabe's action was filed.

"Appellants did not challenge the closure of state lands for the October hunt, which proceeded as scheduled," the state argued in Wednesday's response.

Although year-to-year comparisons are difficult because of other factors, such as weather, this month's hunt, held Oct. 8-13, resulted in 140 bears killed.

That hunt was limited to archery for the first three days and archery and muzzleloading rifles the next three days.

During the October 2017 hunt, 244 bears were killed, and in 2016, the first year for an archery bear hunt in New Jersey, 562 bears were killed in October.

The state's black bear management plan, which outlines how New Jersey will deal with the largest land mammal in the state, lists hunting as the prime method of controlling the bear population in the state, thereby reducing bear-human contact.

Other parts of the plan recommend education, garbage control and further study of bears.

Experts note that New Jersey has the densest population of black bears in the country with an estimated 2,500 bears just in the northwestern corner of the state. Although bears have been seen in all counties in the state, hunting is limited to an area roughly west of Interstate 287 and north of Routes 518 and 533.

In its Wednesday afternoon response to the hunters, the Attorney General's Office said McCabe did not change any regulations. The state's attorneys said she was acting as a landlord, not a regulator, and the hunt will proceed as scheduled on non-state lands.

Part of the groups' argument is that by the closing of state land, many hunters who don't have the means or opportunity to obtain permission to hunt on private land are effectively shut out of participating.

In Sussex County, there is no county-owned parkland, and most municipal parks are not large enough to allow hunting. There is, however, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which not affected by the ban because that park is federal property.

In response to a third claim, the state's brief says, "Lastly, appellants' generalized and unsubstantiated claim that the administrative order may jeopardize federal funding is too amorphous to justify accelerating the appeal."

Safari, NJOA and Sportsmen's Alliance have argued that the state has received grant money from the federal government to purchase and maintain areas such as wildlife management areas. The federal funds are generated through an excise tax on hunting and fishing equipment, including ammunition, and is returned to state wildlife departments.
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