Volume 12, Issue 36 ~ September 2 - 8, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

I Can Bear-ly Contain Myself
Bears are bigger than deer, nutria or mute swans. Are we willing to let them get out of hand at the risk of then trying to play catch-up?

Just tell me where the bears can be delivered.
—Sen. John Hafer of Western Maryland, a member of the Maryland Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee

Of course no one took up the offer of the Garrett County Republican last week during deliberations at a public hearing concerning Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ proposal to hold a highly restrictive bear hunt in Western Maryland. It seems no one wants too many bruins around them, nor the nuisances they cause. But they want others to endure the problems associated with bear overpopulation.

Sen. Hafer’s caustic remarks were directed primarily to Montgomery County’s hotbed of animal-rights extremists and downright anti-hunters (from that county come four members of the 22-member Committee), but I’m sure he would have been more than happy to send bears from his jurisdiction to any other county.

As he put it, in obvious frustration with the way the testimony was going, he’d pack and ship a male and a female bruin to the counties where the thinking is that Western Marylanders have the bears, so let them deal with the problem — without killing them. That is the way thinking goes on the bear issue.

Only in Western Maryland do folks endure crop damage, livestock loss, beehives raided, fears for their kids and sometimes themselves as brazen bruins invade decks, porches, garages, sheds and other outbuildings.

Only in Western Maryland are citizens asked to forgo feeding birds in warmer months to avoid attracting bears. Only in Western Maryland are homeowners assessed fees for bear-proof garbage containers and pick-up. Only in Western Maryland do citizens pay for auto reconstruction after collisions with bears.

In the end, the Committee voted 12–5 against DNR’s proposed hunt to the cheers of about 100 animal rights activists, many of whom were crowded in the hallway outside the packed hearing room in Annapolis and wearing No Bear Hunt stickers.

I hope the vote was only a bump in the road toward facing up to the obvious bear problem. Gov. Bob Ehrlich has the last word; he can overrule the Committee, and he is expected to do so.

Bearing My Past
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of all of this, perhaps a disclaimer is appropriate. This writer is founder and editor emeritus of an annual deer-hunting magazine that also covers wild turkey and bear; has been a Maryland outdoor writer since arriving here in 1956; and is also a hunter. In my younger days I hunted bear from my native Vermont to Alaska and was the owner of a Walker hound, considered a prime bear-hunting dog in the Northeast.

But allow me to also add, I have no desire to hunt bears in Western Maryland (I only hunt game I intend to eat, and bear steaks leave much to be desired) though I have no objections to others doing so. To each his own. Go for it, if the bear population can handle a limited hunt such as the 30 DNR targets for removal as it tries to ease problems in Western Maryland and to cease the expansion of the bruin population to counties more to the east, where habitat and social conditions are not as they are in Garrett and Allegany counties.

Point and Counterpoint
The Committee stance in all of this is curious. A while back, it heard DNR testimony on the need for a hunt and balked at approving it. Instead, the Committee announced it wanted to hold a hearing on the matter. So far, so good, but “so good” ends there.

There was barely a quorum at the beginning of the hearing last week, and far less than a quorum when the vote was taken. But know what? Members who didn’t attend had cast their votes previously via phone without even hearing the latest testimony.

Methinks also that the bear issue is so emotional that the lengthy Committee hearing did little more than afford some legislators with an opportunity to be in the media spotlight. Were they playing to their constituents who have never seen bears in the wild — and never experienced the problems they pose currently in parts of the nation? Meanwhile, the lawmakers were taking up the time of a band of DNR scientists and administrators who have much else to do.

Moreover, not only are four Committee members from anti-hunter Montgomery County, only a couple are from rural counties. Only one, Sen. Hafer, is from where bear problems currently are.

Where bears are could change unless Gov. Ehrlich supports science. Already we have some bruins moving as far east as Cecil and Harford counties. One visited Anne Arundel County several years back.

In Harford County, a homeowner shot a 400-pound bear after it attacked his dog.

Animal rights activists also had some other curious contentions. They suggested there was no problem, as there are only 300 bears in Maryland, compared with 5.1 million people. DNR’s scientific tally is 400 bears in the area designated to be hunted (roughly west of Evitts Creek near Cumberland) plus another hundred west of there.

The objectors also made much hay of the poll, sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States and The Fund for Animals, that indicated 57 percent of the 847 people polled statewide were opposed to a hunt. No mention was made of the DNR-financed poll, which showed just the opposite. Nor that the questions in the bear-friendly poll were decidedly loaded.

Objectors once again offered $75,000 to the state to cancel hunt plans, the funds to be used to pay for bear damages. That amount wouldn’t come near to covering losses by farmers, said Sen. Hafer. What’s more, many farmers don’t file claims because of the bother and inadequate compensation. Nor was any mention made of how money was to cope with the expanding bear range. Money or not, bears eat crops, grow healthier and have more cubs that move farther east when their moms kick them out.

Curious also was that among the protestants was Dr. Joe Lamp, who happens to be a member of the Maryland Wildlife Advisory Commission, which overwhelmingly voted for the hunt; he was the only dissenter. Yet in introducing himself before deriding the plan, he identified himself as a commission member instead of as a private citizen. Is something wrong here? If you know the answer it’s not a question.

The real low blow was struck by Wayne Pacelle, Humane Society CEO, who accused the department of being a “procurer of game for hunters.” DNR’s wildlife scientists welcome bears back in reasonable numbers in Western Maryland, and to suggest that they would imperil the comeback only to provide hunting opportunity is unconscionable.

The Heart Shot
Methinks the crux of the ongoing highly controversial bear question is this: Do we harken to the recommendations of professional wildlife scientists familiar with species problems and management — or to public opinion polls and emotional entanglements? The decision is as simple as that.

Enough said …

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