OAKLAND, Md. – On a sunny day in October, the Garrett County mountains are ablaze with sugar maples and scarlet oaks. Two-lane roads weave through forests, emerging in towns postcard-perfect with wooden church spires, American flags and pumpkins on porches.
It’s gospel country, coal country and, since the early 1970s, black bear country again.
Ursus americanus – a mammal weighing up to 800 pounds at maturity – lives here under the protection of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. It is illegal to kill one.
And that has landowners in prime bear habitat hopping mad. Some would return to the days when only 12 bears roamed the state, rather than the current 200. When they didn’t have to worry about losing bee hives, crops – and in rare cases, sheep – to bears.
Among them is Lee Shillingburg, whose family has farmed 700 acres on the edge of the Potomac State Forest since 1852. He claims that this year he’s lost about 40 sheep, worth $4,900.
“The DNR doesn’t think like we do,” Shillingburg said. “I feel like I’m the guinea pig for the state of Maryland.”
The practice of trapping and releasing nuisance bears hasn’t solved his problem, he complains. On Oct. 4, the DNR euthanized one such bear – a sow that Shillingburg said had repeatedly attacked his lambs.
This year, in search of a solution, the DNR assembled the Black Bear Citizens Task Force, drawing from local farmers, landowners, beekeepers, legislators, officials, hunters and conservation organizations.
On Oct. 11, it released three proposals. The most controversial would allow bear hunting in Maryland for the first time in 41 years.
The hunt would be confined to areas that have reached “cultural carrying capacity” – loosely defined as the maximum number of bears that people will allow to co-exist. Hunting fees would in turn fund a black bear damage compensation program.
But there is debate over whether the damage being reported is due to bears.
Steve Bittner, a DNR biologist and inspector, said it was rare for bears to attack livestock, and that most of Shillingburg’s losses could have resulted from loose fence wire, escaped sheep and coyotes. Though he sympathized with the farmers, Bittner said black bears were normally docile, unaggressive animals that adapt well to humans. Their preferred food stock is berries, acorns and vegetation.
“We know a lot more about bears than we used to,” Bittner said.
Wildlife conservationists strongly oppose the hunting proposal, saying the DNR lacks the data to allow a hunt. D.J. Schubert, who represented the Fund for Animals on the task force, said there is no solid information, either about population or the impact of unreported illegal killings.
Maryland has a tiny bear population in contrast with neighboring West Virginia’s 4,000 and Pennsylvania’s 7,000.
“Allowing a hunt to proceed would constitute irresponsible management,” Schubert said.
As human population density increases, bears are losing habitat and bear-human conflicts are to be expected, Schubert added. Road kills, illegal kills and natural causes already take 10 percent of the existing population, according to the DNR.
Schubert supports the use of non-lethal controls. Compensation to farmers could be raised by more creative means, such as sales of conservation license plates or commemorative stamps, he added.
“Though most people say the bears are disturbing my home or farm, it’s really the other way around — people are living in the bear’s home,” he said.
The DNR will solicit public opinion before implementing a final decision in spring 1996. The meetings, all at 6:30 p.m., are scheduled for:
* Nov. 2 – Northern High School, Accident.
* Nov. 6 – Dulaney High School, Timonium.
* Nov. 14 – Easton National Guard Armory, Easton.
* Nov. 16 – Annapolis Senior High School, Annapolis.
Many of the task force’s members are constituents of Del. George Edwards (R-Garrett), who expects the hunting proposal to meet with approval in his county, but not around the state.
“They’re not the ones that deal with the problem,” Edwards said, referring to urban areas. His constituents, on the other hand, complain that bears are attacking their dogs and even “pounding on their doors and looking them in the eye.”
Hunters’ groups shot down a proposal during a recent General Assembly session that would have raised bear-damage funds by adding a dime to hunting fees, Edwards said.
Bittner, the DNR official, insists a hunt is only one among several possible outcomes. “We are looking for a workable solution – we just don’t know what that solution will be,” he said.
And he speculated that an animal benefactor could come foward at an upcoming meetings, offering funds for bear damage. He’d be among the first to ask, “Where do I sign?”
On the other side would be Shillingburg, the Garrett County farmer. “If people want to see bears,” he told a recent visitor, “let ’em go to the zoo.” -30-