A hunter in New Jersey with his trophy black bear during the state's… (Spencer Platt/Getty Images )
A woman with a history of fighting New Jersey's controversial annual black bear hunt scored a court victory this week when a judge ruled that the pile of bear-friendly food and bear feces found in her front yard did not prove she had violated state laws against feeding the animals.
It was the second time Susan Kehoe has faced criminal charges since New Jersey in 2003 permitted its first black bear hunt in 33 years.
Kehoe, 61, was acquitted in a court in Vernon on Tuesday night, the Star-Ledger reported, despite testimony from state wildlife officials that they found dog food, sunflower seeds and bear feces in the front yard of Kehoe's home in a rural area of northern New Jersey. Officers discovered the food and bear feces after she had called them to complain about hunters she said were trespassing on her property.
Kehoe's attorney, Dan Perez, asked one of the officials: "How do you know she wasn't feeding raccoons, beavers, coyotes, fox or any other animal?" The conservation officer, Kyle Ziegler, admitted he could not be "100% certain," the Star-Ledger reported.
Case closed, at least for now, but bear lovers in New Jersey say the case pointed up some of the problems in the state's handling of the growing population of black bears.
Black bears in New Jersey now number an estimated 3,400. And, according to the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife, the number of reported human-bear encounters grew 133% between 2006 and 2010, with reports of bears attempting to break into homes and of bears entering vehicles.
The department says all 21 counties in New Jersey have confirmed bear sightings, though animal activists accuse the state of inflating overall bear numbers to drum up support for killing the animals.
In allowing the hunts, the state cited the soaring bear population in the densely populated state, saying bear-human encounters were becoming common and too risky to ignore.
The hunt has been held most years in early December, despite animal activists' attempts to block it. Last year, a state appellate court dismissed challenges to the black bear management policy that permits the hunt.
A total of 469 black bears were killed in the six-day hunt in December.
Animal activists who have opposed the hunts contend that humans need to do a better job of staying out of the bears' way. If wildlife officials enforced laws on securing trash cans and other bear lures, the anti-hunt groups say, it would solve the problem of human-bear encounters.
As for Kehoe, she was sentenced two years ago to a year's probation and fined $1,250 after being convicted of interfering with state wildlife officials who were trying to tranquilize a bear so they could adjust the tracking device on the animal.