TRENTON, N.J. — Animal protection groups seeking to stop New Jersey's black bear hunt from getting under way told an appeals court Tuesday that the hunt is based on faulty data — exaggerated numbers of bear-human incidents and unreliable population counts that put too many pregnant females at risk of being hunted.

Two animal rights groups sued the state last year, challenging the bear management policy that allows an annual six-day hunt. The activists failed to stop last year's hunt, in which 592 black bears were killed, but the lawsuit was allowed to continue on its merits.

Last year's hunt was the first in five years. A similar legal challenge succeeded in 2007, and no hunt was held. An appeals panel found flaws with the management policy and ruled that the 2005 hunt should not have taken place.

Tuesday's oral arguments before a three-judge panel focused on the Division of Fish and Wildlife's 2010 comprehensive bear management policy, which includes a hunt. The state maintains that a hunt is needed to keep the black bear population of around 3,400 in check.

A ruling is expected before Dec. 5, the hunt's scheduled start date. An appeal to the state Supreme Court is possible.

Bears have been spotted in 19 of 21 counties this year. The Department of Environmental Protection has recorded 2,667 reports of bear activity through October, a number that includes bear sightings, attacks on livestock, 46 home entries and 516 reports of bears picking through garbage.

Doris Lin, a lawyer for the Animal Protection League of New Jersey and The Bear Education Resource Group, asked the appeals panel to cancel the hunt and invalidate the bear management policy. She maintains the policy is based on skewed data and is therefore unreliable.

For example, the number of bear complaints reported by the state rose in the years from 2007 to 2009, but Lin says that's because data was being collected from 32 police departments in 2009 but just 17 departments two years earlier.

The state didn't dispute the discrepancy or the fact that pregnant bears don't enjoy absolute protection during a hunt. But Deputy Attorney General Dean Jablonski, who argued for the state, said the bear management policy was based on reasoned decision-making and the best data available at the time.

For example, he said the state now recognizes that there are more female bears than males in New Jersey, which wasn't true a decade ago, and that about half are of breeding age, a smaller percentage than previously thought. Such changes in the local bear population help guide the policy, he said.

Anna Seidman, a lawyer for the New Jersey Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs and Safari Club International, told the panel that recreational hunting actually helps maintain a sustainable, genetically sound bear population. She also said the data collected from hunted bears helps wildlife officials better understand and manage the bear population.

The hunt is held concurrently with the firearm deer season. Bear hunting is allowed in the northwestern part of the state, north of Interstate 78 and west of Interstate 287.

Besides a hunt, the Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy developed by the Division of Fish and Wildlife includes education, a bear feeding ban and aversive conditioning.