How one endangered bear’s life got saved
by Al McKegg
As October ended, Maryland’s third black bear hunt in 51 years made trophies of 41 bruins in two days. That’s one less than the number killed in 2005. In the past 50 years, black bears moved from the brink of extinction due to hunting in the 1950s, to refuge on the Endangered Species list in 1974, to fair game in 2004.
In 1984, a year before the bear moved from endangered back to forest game animal, a rogue bruin had to be saved, no matter how much trouble it caused.
On June 11, as this story began, a fellow named Jeff was sleeping off a drunk in the Ellicott City slammer.
Bear Zero was about three miles to the northwest, running scared. It was hot, 105 degrees in the shade, and Bear Zero was tired, having traveled some 300 miles from his birthplace in the mountains near Roanoke, Virginia. Three years old and 175 pounds, he’d swum the Potomac, navigated backyards and dodged cars all the way to Ellicott City, Maryland.
Bear Zero was looking for a home, but he didn’t find it here. Instead, he found the Howard County SWAT team, a State Police helicopter, a gaggle of reporters and cameras and my eight-month-pregnant wife Janet.
Janet, was the first woman hired as a wildlife biologist by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. As a DNR district manager, she was responsible for wildlife in Howard and Montgomery counties, including nuisance animals. Mostly that meant little nuisances like skunks and snakes. But sometimes the nuisances were large. Like black bear.
Black bears are solitary animals, roaming a territory alone except for mating and cub-rearing times. When cubs are about two years old, mother bear kicks them out to find their own territories.
DNR got reports on home-hunting Bear Zero as he passed through Poolesville, traversed Montgomery County and crossed into Howard County. Wildlife biologists hoped he would take a left at I-70 and find the mountains, but he took a right and found a patch of scrubby woods near the Route 29 interchange. Not far from Heartlands Retirement Community, not far from St. Johns Lane Elementary School. Far from bear territory.
In 1984, the only tranquilizer gun in this area belonged to Mike Cranfield, the Baltimore Zoo veterinarian. He, Janet and Bob Beyer (then Janet’s boss, and still involved in bear matters for DNR) formed a posse intent on getting enough drug into Bear Zero to anesthetize him before he hurt someone or was killed.
Montgomery County’s SWAT team had to shoot a Bethesda bear just a few months earlier, and Howard’s team was ready if needed.
The situation was tense. Route 29 traffic was jammed; mothers and children lined the roads to watch; police were everywhere. The helicopter roared overhead, dropping low to track the bear but also flushing him repeatedly from one patch of cover to another.
Sweat pouring off him, Cranfield stalked Bear Zero, followed by Janet carrying tranquilizer vials.
Mike hit Bear Zero with one dart, but the bear was so frantic that the drug had no effect. The helicopter left to refuel, giving the bear a chance to calm. A second dart hit him, and he went down. But with the double dose of tranquilizer, the heat and the stress, he was near death.
He had to be moved quickly to a cool place where he could be treated yet not hurt anybody if he woke up. Howard County’s finest had the answer: the paddy wagon, then the air-conditioned Ellicott City jail, where Jeff awoke from his drunken siesta to find a new neighbor in the next cell with multiple I-V drips and icepacks all over him.
“Whatever that guy was drinking, I’ll pass,” he slurred.
Maryland bears have now rebounded, to somewhere between 200 to 400 or more. The population is surveyed by DNA sampling, ear tags (Bear Zero had several) and other data sources.
As bear numbers have grown, so have bear-human conflicts, and complaints have risen dramatically. Conflicts and complaints also encouraged the hunt.
Bear Zero was released in Garrett County, where (black bears can live to 25) he may still roam. But maybe not. Some 38 Maryland bears were killed by cars in 2003 alone. In 2005, the same number of bears killed by cars equalled the same number killed by hunters: 40.
With growth shrinking woodland habitat, us and the bears have more history to write.