As opponents turned out to denounce them, hunters killed more than 50 bears Monday at the start of a state-authorized hunt aimed at thinning New Jersey's burgeoning bear population.

The hunt, restricted to the state's northwestern corner and open to about 4,400 hunters with permits, got under way in freezing weather after legal challenges by animal rights groups failed.

Black bears, once near extinction in the state, are now a common sight, menacing people, scampering through yards and rummaging in trash.

"Bears are beautiful animals, but they've got to be controlled," said Joe Giunta, 59, who bagged one Monday morning.

About a dozen hunt opponents gathered at a weigh station at Wawayanda State Park, confronting hunters and forming "bear rescue teams" with plans to tend to wounded bears and follow hunters in what they said was a mission of mercy. Many protesters wore bright orange shirts, the same color required of hunters.

"Today, for us, is a very sad day," said Lynda Smith, president of Bear Education and Resource Group, one of two groups that unsuccessfully sued to delay the hunt. "They're here to kill them, we're here to help them."

"It's an emotional issue," said Martin McHugh, director of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, which estimates the bear population at between 1,600 and 3,200.

The state's last bear hunt was in 2003, when 328 were killed. That was the first since 1970, when hunts were suspended because the black bear population had dropped to about 100.

Proponents of the hunt rejected arguments that bear-proof trash cans and "aversive conditioning" — such as using fireworks to scare bears away from populated areas — would work better than a hunt.

"No matter where they eat, they're still going to reproduce," said Andy Romanelli, 36. "The facts are the facts. They're overpopulated."

State officials said 54 bears were killed as of 2:30 p.m. Monday. The total killed each day of the planned six-day hunt will not be available until the following day.