Our New Neighbors Are Big, Furry and Hungry
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposd a bear!
A Midsummer Nights Dream: Shakespeare, 1595
Truth is, friends, out in Garrett County as far west as you can get and still be on Maryland soil, you dont have to look at a bush and suppose its a bear. It probably is a bear.
To hear some of the mountain folk talk, bears will be as common as bushes unless theres a hunting season or DNR comes up with some other solution to handle the yearling cubs Momma Bear chases off as she prepares for a new family.
Shes a bit more accommodating to female cubs they can linger longer but Momma wants the young males gone. Where are they going to go?
Not long ago a young male bruin was done in by an auto on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway near Hanover in Anne Arundel County not far from BWI. Time was and not too long ago when such a bear would have been considered an escapee from a carnival, circus or zoo. No more.
Its just another bear whose not-too-distant-ancestry is of Garrett County stock. And this particular bruin, which met its fate not more than 20 miles from the Burton household in North County, wont be the last to surprise us flatlanders who, until June, considered bears and bear problems a curious nuisance out in the distant mountains of our state.
Hereabouts, the only bear for many of us is the bear market of Wall Street, but such thinking could change. Natural Resources Steve Bittner, who tracks bear movements from his Western Maryland base, figures that Baltimore-Washington Parkway bear could have been the same one spotted a few days earlier near Howard Community College.
How far east can or will they go? The Chesapeake Bay is a barrier, but Bittner wouldnt be surprised to eventually see some anywhere west of the Bay. And when we chatted recently about the expanding range of bears, he didnt rule out the day when a few pioneer bruins might take the round-about route, get across the Susquehanna and end up on the Eastern Shore where there is some dandy remote forested habitat in Dorchester and Worcester counties.
Those young bears shooed from their mothers have to go somewhere, and east is the direction where theres more room. Bears dont like a lot of company, other bear company that is, and Garrett County appears saturated. Allegany and Washington counties are getting their share, so is Frederick and the western forests of Montgomery. And, heres how it happens.
Bears on the Move
Not infrequently, the young outcast male bruins will travel more than 20 miles, sometimes as much as a hundred miles, to set up shop. They need space. Generally, the young females dont wander as far, usually remaining less than 20 miles from their original range.
Keep in mind that Garrett County, far away as it sounds, is a tad less than 200 miles from Annapolis, where the thinking is that bear problems are the price rural folks of Western Maryland must pay financially and otherwise for living in the sticks.
Its obvious what happens with bears. In already established bear areas, numbers increase along with problems. The young bears that move farther away expand the basic range, and people start seeing bruins where they have never seen them before. Those folks take notice: Suddenly Garrett County bears dont seem so far off after all.
Currently, Marylands bear population is figured by DNR to be between 300 and 400, possibly a bit more, but Bittner said another survey is underway, the results of which should be available the first of the year. Judging from reports, we all might be surprised.
Many folks in Garrett County not only think there are more bears than that estimate (some who work with farmers to reduce bruin damages say there are more than 800), but as bruin numbers increase they are becoming less disturbed by human presence if not more aggressive.
Theres a new term for bears out in the mountains: porch bears. Theyre the ones that visit homes, go right onto porches in search of meals and are reluctant to leave. They love to lick the crispy fat from barbecue grills, after bashing them around a bit.
One Garrett County bear researcher called to a home on a bear complaint saw the bruin on the porch. He struck it with a stick, then got a bigger tree limb and chased it deep into the woods. An hour later it was back.
Dogs have been mauled, people have had to bring their bird feeders in at night, beehives are raided, crops eaten or scattered by frolicking bears enjoying meals. Flimsy sheds containing garbage have been broken into, rubbish scattered and for those who have garbage pickup on call, theres an $8 surcharge to clean up after bears.
Earlier this year, Maryland Sportsmans Association urged the Maryland Wildlife Advisory Commission to begin a highly restricted bear season to cull 10 to 20 percent of the population. It was to be a lottery-type hunt with an application fee and a $100 license for successful applicants. All proceeds would go to the Bear Damage Fund to compensate farmers for losses.
The Wildlife Advisory Commission agreed and forwarded the request to DNR, but department Secretary Sarah Taylor-Rogers announced 10 days ago that there would be no season this year or next. She said she had given the proposal much thought, taking into consideration the growing number of bears and nuisance problems and also the wishes of the public.
Her announcement on the bear situation marked the first time the upper echelon of DNR has admitted there appear to be enough bears to warrant a highly restrictive season.
Secretary Taylor-Rogers did not rule out a hunt after the two-year grace period for the growing bruin population in Western Maryland. She said focus groups will be organized to once again review the bear situation, then will come more public meetings to sample public opinion. She added that DNR will step up efforts to assist those victimized by bruin nuisance incidents.
This puts us back to more than seven years ago when the whole process took place. At the end of it all, the study groups recommended a highly restricted season.
Two months before the department had decided the issue, Gov. Parris Glendenings office told Tim Lambert, president of Maryland Sportsmans Association, there would be no bear season. However, Secretary Taylor-Rogers said the decision was hers.
She said there is more funding in the Bear Damage Fund this year to help compensate farmers and beekeepers for losses, and the department will assist other Western Marylanders (though not financially) in curbing bear nuisance damages. The Bear Damage Fund has $10,719 in its coffers.
Only farmers and beekeepers are entitled to damage compensation; others must pay from their own pockets. Even the farmers and beekeepers arent too happy; at best they will get 70 cents on the dollar in damage claims. Many dont even apply: too much bureaucratic red tape involved.
Meanwhile, the bear population grows, and more will be headed our way. There could come the time when that bush in the back yard isnt a bush after all.