Burton on the Bay:

The Bear Facts
DNR Stirs a Hibernating Issue

When I make a mistake it's a beaut!

-New York Mayor LaGuardia, admitting to a goof more than a half century ago.


Time for the information section of the Department of Natural Resources to own up to its recent classic blunder, one that will certainly be the topic of discussion as Maryland hunters hit the deer trail Saturday for the beginning of their annual two-week season.

It's incredible that such a mistake could get by the censors within the department - and we all know within all bureaucracies there are hawks who blue-line anything potentially controversial. In this scenario, was the censor out shopping for a holiday gobbler?

This mistake, in the words of the former popular mayor of NYC, is a beaut. On a very important issue, it alienates an important segment of its hunting constituency. And hunters have long memories.

In a well-meaning effort to boost bear stamp sales over the holidays, DNR's info specialists dispatched a news release featuring the pitch that stamps make a great gift for the person who has everything.

"Stuff your stocking with an unbearably unique gift" was a catchy introduction to the release that requested editors to include "the following in holiday gift idea packages and stories."

That's when its writer, presumably Susan O'Brien (whose name appears on the release) should have shut down her computer and gone shopping for the Thanksgiving turkey. But she stayed at the electronic keyboard and created a turkey on her own.

Now, her department is getting the bird from the many hunters who have long complained DNR should represent them more and animal rights activists less. In their eyes, the department has cooked its own goose.

Sadly, the bottom line loser in all of this is not gullible Susan, her section or her department. It's the black bear population of Western Maryland - and farmers and other landowners who endure bear damages. Now, an awful lot of hunters wouldn't buy a $5 bear stamp under any circumstances.

They are among those who would cut off their noses to spite their faces, which we'll get into in a moment. But to give you an idea of how complicated even the most seemingly simple things in wildlife management can become, the background of this hullabaloo is appropriate:


Squared Off

In making the sales pitch for bear conservation stamps, curiously the writer brought into the story two of the most high-profile anti-hunter groups in the country - and brought them in prominently. They are the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals.

Under ordinary circumstances that might be okay. After all, everyone should do their bit both for bruins and for those whose crops are targeted by growing bear populations especially in Garrett County, where times are tough enough without losing potential income to hungry wildlife. Stamp sales proceeds are intended to compensate such farmers for their losses.

But ordinary circumstances don't prevail in this controversy. First, DNR, financially dependent on hunters, featured in its sales pitch two groups opposed to hunting. Then the department ignored groups aligned with hunter interests. They didn't rate a word.

But that's still not all.

Anti-hunter, animal rights and humane groups are erroneously taking credit for the Bear Stamp program, which in fact was recommended by DNR's Black Bear Committee several years back.

The committee's first recommendation was a highly restrictive hunting season with a small number of permits issued via lottery to thin out a few bruins in areas where most bear damages and human encounters exist. The bear stamp was second, implemented when it became obvious the first wouldn't fly at the time.

So naturally hunters are upset their antagonists are claiming credit for a program established by a committee appointed by what they would like to think of (but don't always) as their spokesmen, their defenders and also the managers of the resources they support via licenses and stamps.

Then there's the stinging salt in the wounds, a blatant mistake in bare - or is it bear? - facts in the controversial news release.

John Grandy, Humane Society senior vice president of Wildlife and Habitat Protection, in urging the public to buy stamps, is quoted as saying "Thirty years ago, Maryland's black bear population was hunted nearly to extinction." Whoa.

Now I know John. His background is in wildlife management, and he's not the typical anti-hunter. He's a responsible sort, intelligent and I'm confident not an extremist. But he sure goofed - as did the writer of the release by not checking the facts.

I can't figure where that 30 year figure came from. The truth is, black bears have not been hunted legally in Maryland since 1953. That's 45 years ago, and even then the harvest was minimal. There were few bears around and hardly any were harvested, some years none.

Maryland bruins gave way not to hunters but to human intrusion in their range. Many moved into the wilderness of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. But like wild turkeys, they have since learned to co-exist with humans and are now - to the lament of farmers - thriving in their traditional lands.

But here's DNR - charged with representing hunters - erroneously telling the world via Grandy that hunters nearly hunted Maryland's black bears to extinction. Where are the department's fact checkers?


The Farmer and the Bear

Those hunters now so irate they wouldn't buy a bear stamp are a curious lot, a sad lot indeed. They're also very shortsighted.

They want a bear season at some time in the future. And the farmers of Western Maryland harassed by bear damages want them to have one. But by not buying a stamp, hunters are lessening their chances for such a season.

Farmers can take only so much. Bear stamp sales have been so disappointing that they only get 42 percent on the dollar for their losses, crops eaten and trampled, beehives destroyed and livestock threatened. Know what happens when farmers can take no more of having to stand by and endure losses because they can't legally cull bears that are costing them money?

They take matters into their own hands, and the byword among those of Western Maryland is an acronym: SSS. Translated: Shoot, shovel and shut up.

There is no solid evidence SSS is yet being practiced, but even if it is, farmers wouldn't talk and risk prosecution. But remember, they can take only so much.

Once they start culling nuisance bears, that population estimated between 400 and 500 is going to be impacted. In plain English, hunters won't be needed to play a role in population management.

A little foresight tells us that buying a bear stamp now will make more farmers more tolerant of bear damages because, better compensated for their losses, they will be less likely to conduct their own underground hunting season.

Furthermore, as hunters - people who claim we're interested in wildlife for reasons beyond hunting - do we think five bucks too much to cough up to finance a program benefiting farmers, the people whose lands are inhabited by our wildlife and the people who decide whether or not we hunt on their lands? Something to think about while we're on the deer trail.

Enough said ...

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VolumeVI Number 47
Nov. 26 - Dec. 2, 1998
New Bay Times

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