A state game panel on Tuesday approved a six-day bear hunt for December but, thanks to a state court decision last year, the final say on whether hunters will be able to bag a bruin will rest with New Jersey's environmental commissioner. The Fish and Game Council, the agency that sets all of New Jersey's hunting seasons, said a hunt is needed to control the growth of the black bear population. Wildlife officials say the Garden State's bears are so prolific, they're averaging more cubs than bears in other states. Once scarce, bears now number in the thousands in New Jersey and have been spotted in all the state's 21 counties. However, the state Department of Environmental Protection has restricted its official bear population estimates to two study areas that encompass just under 600 square miles in the northwest part of the state. There are about 1,600 bears spread among those areas, wildlife officials said. The animals are increasingly encountering the state's suburban residents, sometimes killing pets or breaking into homes as they forage for food. From January to early July, the state received 677 complaints about bears causing damage or being a nuisance, up from 424 for same period last year. In mid-July, a bear injured a sleeping camper along the Appalachian Trail at High Point State Park. The game panel's approval came just days after officials killed two bears in separate incidents for invading a home in Sussex County and a campsite in Warren County. Approval of a hunt drew criticism from environmental groups. Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club said the state needs a bear management plan more than a hunt. The state also needs to protect habitat from being lost to development. "Until we put the resources in and have a real management plan, we can't support a hunt. We're not opposed to hunting, but our position is that the state needs to put more resources into educating the public on how to live in bear country,'' Tittel said. The Humane Society of the United States questioned the motives of a hunt and doubted it would effectively reduce bear conflicts with people. "The proposal to hunt black bears in New Jersey is a thinly veiled attempt to allow trophy hunters to blast away at one of the state's most unique and fascinating species,'' HSUS Executive Vice President Michael Markarian said in a prepared statement. Environmental chief Bradley Campbell blocked a hunt last year, and took the game council to court in a dispute that centered largely on whether a hunt could be held without his say. At the time, Campbell favored other means to control the bears. Just days before a hunt was to be held, the state Supreme Court settled the matter in a ruling that essentially sided with Campbell but also pointed out that New Jersey lacked an overall approach for dealing with the bears. The court said no hunt could be held in the absence of that kind of planning. This year, Campbell has eased his opposition and has said he's studying the idea of a hunt. Game council head Ernest Hahn said the panel is working with Campbell to develop a management plan that will also include awareness education for people living in New Jersey's bear range, which generally encompasses the northwest part of the state. Public hearings on that plan are expected to be held in September, after which Campbell will decide whether to sign off on a firearms hunt, now planned to start Dec. 5. "At this point the hunt is necessary,'' Hahn said. "Part of the bear policy is to investigate all other methods of eventual control and management of bears, so it's a balanced policy that will come out.'' In 2003, New Jersey held its first bear hunt in 33 years; 328 bears were killed. Martin McHugh, director of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, said a 2005 hunt would be structured like the previous one, limited to an area north of Interstate 78 and west of Interstate 287. Permits will be free to licensed hunters, who will be required to have sat through a seminar on how to bag a bear. If officials determine too many bears are being killed, the hunt would be stopped, McHugh said.