Volume 12, Issue 10 ~ March 4-10, 2004

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Up in Arms Over Maryland’s Bears
Hunters have their sights on bear; whether they shoot plays out this month.
story by Sarah Findlay • photos by Phil Malone

Some sunny mid-March morning, when daylight lingers longer into evening hours, Maryland’s black bears will yawn, stretch, scratch and sleepily amble from their forest dens where they’ve been hibernating since December.

All around Deep Creek Lake, hundreds of bears — mama bears, papa bears and baby bears — will soon rejoin the society of Garrett and Allegany counties.

That’s a problem as far as some of their human neighbors are concerned. Whether the bears number 226 or 437, (and that’s as close a census as biologists could get in 2001) that’s 20 percent too many to satisfy Maryland bearphobes.

Black bears have not always been this abundant in Maryland. By the early 1900s, the once-flourishing bear population was nearly wiped out by increased development, habitat destruction and poaching. By 1956, only 12 bears were counted in the entire state.

The bears have rebounded, thanks to habitat improvement and conservation programs, more stringent logging regulations and help from neighboring states. In the 1970s, Maryland conspired with Pennsylvania to relocate some of that state’s abundant black bears farther south. The plan was that the bears would overflow into Maryland. The bears took the hint and headed south.

Bear conservation was so successful that the population has doubled in the last five years alone. Now Maryland Department of Natural Resources has shifted from scrambling to save a disappearing species to exploring ways to balance a burgeoning bear population that has outgrown human comfort.

Come October, hunters may be taking up guns to solve the problem. After a three-year study of bear population dynamics over the past decade, the Department of Natural Resources Black Bear Task Force last year proposed a limited black bear hunt to control the growing bear population. That is why friends of bears are up in arms this spring, making their case to lawmakers, citizens and even the courts.

Bears Behaving Badly
Just what have Maryland’s bears done to call down a death sentence?

The growing number of bears has awakened fear for human safety among some residents of western counties. No bears attacks on humans have been reported, but the bears are feared as threats to children and pets. “The bears have become a scare and a problem. Being able to manage the population is critical,” said Tom Bender, of Allegany County, who supports the hunt.

Fear for human safety does not motivate all who support the hunt. For farmers, the motive is bear interference with their livelihood: crops. Farmers hope the hunt will reduce not only bear numbers but also damage they say bears have inflicted in recent years. Farmers complain that bears trample corn and oat fields, raid beekeepers’ hives and damage property. Some even claim the bears go after their sheep and dogs. Bears caused more than $40,000 in damage in 2003, according to Valerie Connelly of the Maryland Farm Bureau. Reducing the number of bears, she argues, will give each remaining bear more space, thereby reducing their need to turn to crops for food.

For the past eight years, crop damage has been offset by the Black Bear Conservation Stamp. A take-off on the very successful federal (now copied in many states) duck stamp program, which funds national wildlife refuges, the bear stamp raised money to reimburse farmers for damage inflicted by black bears. The $5 bear stamp wasn’t a permit to hunt but rather a collectable art miniature. But it never caught on the way duck stamps have, and the proceeds were insufficient to cover the total cost of farmers’ claims. In 2001, when $36,389 was claimed in damages, stamp funds covered only $21,833, or 60 percent, of these claims.

That shortfall is part of the ammunition farmers and hunters use in arguing that bear hunting is the most feasible and economic solution. Reimbursement programs have fallen short, and the alternative non-lethal methods — birth control, electric fences, relocation and scare tactics — are either too expensive or impractical, they argue.

Call to Arms
Hunting is the time-honored way to manage wildlife. Certainly, it’s what America has always done — and is doing again as big, hungry species rebound from near extinction. Four neighboring states — New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia — now hunt bear.

Hunting is an “accepted scientific wildlife management tool,” said Tom Mathews, chairman of Maryland’s Black Bear Task Force, in justifying the task force’s eight-to-four vote in favor of hunting.

Among hunt benefits he claims support of wildlife management, which in Maryland are largely funded through hunting license fees and taxes on firearms and ammunition. “A bear season would also benefit Western Maryland’s economy by bringing increased sales for hunting outfitters, restaurants and lodgings,” Mathews said.

The National Rifle Association also praises the hunting proposal. “This hunt provides a chance to contribute to wildlife management while enjoying a treasured American pastime,” said association lobbyist Chris Cox. “Thanks to the support of Gov. Ehrlich and NRA members across the state, sportsmen and sports-women can finally hunt black bears in Maryland after a lengthy prohibition.”

The claim that bear numbers are too small to sustain a hunt is not necessarily so, according to Steve Bittner, game mammal manager for the Wildlife and Heritage division of Department of Natural Resources. “Bears do not recognize state boundaries and move freely throughout the Appalachian region each year”, he says, “so management decisions can’t be based on the number of bears in Maryland alone.”

Because “the general trend has been steady upward,” Bittner argues, “a limited hunt would not negatively effect the population.”

Maryland could join its bear-hunting neighbors as soon as this fall, when hungry bears roam into the human comfort zone. Two seasons are proposed: an early, one-week October hunt followed by a second week-long hunt in December if the limit hasn’t been reached.

Marylanders and out-of-state hunters alike would compete through a lottery for the 30 bear hunting permits.

Only 10 to 15 percent of the bear population, some 30 bears, could be killed. The hunters would train in a DNR-led seminar and, in the hunt, check in regularly throughout the day, announcing their kill until the target number is culled. Each hunter would be restricted to one bear.

Friends of Bears
Scientific or not, the new management strategy infuriates conservationists and wildlife lovers — including some on the Bear Task Force — who call the plan a trophy hunt. They argue that a limited hunt would not target the issue at hand: problem bears.

“Trying to reduce bear-human conflicts by shooting bears at random is like trying to reduce crime by shooting into a crowded room,” says Mike Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals.

Bear advocates also contend that the Task Force study does not give accurate population figures. Ronald Barry, a biology professor at Frostburg State University and a member of the Task Force, points out that there has only been one “rigorous” study conducted on bear populations in the last 10 years. If these figures are compared with previous studies, he says, the findings suggest the bear population is not growing.

What’s more, Barry says, bear sightings and bear collisions on roadways do not necessarily mean the population is growing. “These incidents are not reliable for estimating and monitoring bear populations because they are necessarily biased by increases in road traffic and encroachment on bear habitat by human activities,” he says.

The Humane Society of the United States agrees that humans are as much the problem as bears. “The plan implies that decreasing the bear population will reduce the incidence of human-bear conflicts and nuisance complaint,” said wildlife scientist Bette Stallman.

“In fact,” she continued, “it is reasonable to expect that even if the bear population were stable, an increasing human population and increasingly fragmented habitat could be sufficient to result in increased conflicts.”

Some supporters of the hunt argue that since our neighboring states have bear hunting seasons, Marylanders should, too.

But conservationists respond that this is like comparing oranges to tangerines. Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia each have 15,000 or more black bears. Maryland’s few hundred bears are on the fringe of their regional territory.

In addition, bears have a very slow reproductive cycle. A sow has a litter of only one or two cubs every two years. Natural mortality rates are low, but many young bears are killed on highways each year. Thirty bears were killed by vehicles in 2001. In addition, four were killed illegally and another seven deaths were not explained.

For all these reasons and more, bear advocates are dead set against the October and December hunt.

Del. Barbara Frush, who has carried the defense of bears to the Maryland General Assembly, said, “I believe certain things are right and wrong, and this is wrong.”

Making Friends with Bears
Other bear proponents are moved by appreciation rather than by science. Among them are Phil and Lisa Malone, who moved recently from Annapolis to Garrett County, drawn by the natural splendor of a region where bears are a common sight in their yard and beyond.

The Malones, who have taken Department of Natural Resources’ Living with Bears seminars, find that the bears hold true to their reputation. “The bears we encounter are generally shy and docile and often run away when they realize a human is near,” says Phil.

Education, opponents of the hunt unanimously agree, is key to reducing bear-human conflicts. Many people are scared of bears, and rightfully so. They are powerful animals equipped with sharp teeth and claws. Black bears are not, however, the vicious monsters often portrayed in movies. Bears prefer a natural diet of nuts and berries; they occasionally supplement their diet with small mammals or carrion. But bears, being intelligent creatures with good long-term memory, are also opportunists. If food is readily available, they will take advantage.

That’s a lesson Phil Malone has learned firsthand. Here in Chesapeake Country, squirrels rob our bird feeders. For Phil Malone in Garrett County, bears raid his bird feeder. And so far he doesn’t object, as Malone says he finds them more entertaining to watch than birds.

If bears get to be too neighborly, Malone can avoid trouble. Taking his bird feeders in at night, feeding pets indoors and keeping trash in airtight containers can deter a visiting bear. New Germany and Savage River State Parks have bear-proofed their trash cans, and now bear complaints are fewer. For farmers, keeping crops away from wooded areas and fencing and planting wild food sources nearby may keep bears away.

There’s more society can do, too, to keep bears and humans peacefully coexisting. Even as the Task Force recommended a bear hunt, it also suggested non-lethal methods of reducing conflicts: increasing and improving habitat; creating animal pathways around roads; scaring bears away from human populated areas using rubber bullets, electric fences and repellent sprays; and finding a better revenue source to compensate farmers for bear damage.

Rude Awakening
Even as Maryland’s black bears wake from their winter’s sleep, their fate is being decided in hearing rooms of the General Assembly and Department of Natural Resources. The argument could even end up in courtrooms.

Bears’ first line of defense was breached last week when House Bill 451 — placing a six-year moratorium on bear hunting, allowing time for more accurate population studies — was killed by a close vote of 11–10 in the House Environmental Matters Committee.

“The committee is supposed to be progressive, but a lot of rural people representing hunters don’t want a delegate from Prince George’s County telling them how to do things in Western Maryland,” Del. Barbara Frush told Bay Weekly.

Frush vows to again submit her bill next year, but by then, she said, “30 high-rolling hunters in L.L. Bean outfits will have tried out their big guns on bears.”

Public consideration is “key” to establishing a management plan for black bears, the Task Force report said. That key falls into place this month, when Department of Natural Resources holds its own public hearing on the hunt proposal.

Opposition won’t end there. The Fund for Animals will take a hunt to court, according to Markarian.

Are Maryland bears in for a rude awakening when they sleepily stumble from their dens this spring? We’ll have to wait and see.

DNR holds its hearing on Wed., March 10, 7–9pm in the auditorium of Beall Junior-Senior High School on East Main Street in Frostburg. Public comments are also accepted thru April 2 at Black Bear Project, 1728 King’s Run Road, Oakland, MD, 21550 • customerservice@dnr.state.md.us.

About the Author
A wood-refinisher and fledgling writer living in West Annapolis, Sarah Findlay is a Bay Country native who appreciates the natural environment of the Chesapeake Bay, its people and places. This is her first Bay Weekly story.

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Last updated March 11, 2004 @ 1:15am.