ANNAPOLIS – Marylanders on both sides of the state’s black bear debate turned out Wednesday to support a new state fund to compensate farmers who lose crops or livestock to the bruins.
Del. George Edwards, R-Garrett, has sponsored a bill to reimburse damages of at least $200. The measure is meant to forestall bear hunting in the state, an option the Department of Natural Resources considered and rejected earlier this year.
The money will be generated through sales of a $10 bear conservation stamp and contributions, Edwards said.
Estimates of damages from bears range from about $20,000 to $40,000 a year statewide, according to the DNR.
Bear damage is “a major concern in my county,” Edwards told a House Environmental Matters Committee. “Nobody else has this concern.”
Josh Sandt, director of the DNR wildlife division, said the compensation fund was aimed primarily at the agriculture community. “We didn’t want to pay for every bird feeder knocked down by a bear,” he said in an interview before the hearing.
Edwards, however, said bear nuisance calls have not just come from farmers, but from constituents complaining of “damage to their house or around their property.”
Steve Bittner, a DNR biologist, said after the hearing that the department receives about 40 to 50 calls a year regarding nuisance bears, up from about 10 annual calls a decade ago.
Supporters of the bill are concerned that stamp sales and contributions may not cover damages.
“I’ll be surprised if they sell very many of them,” Edwards said of the stamps.
To help out, Lou Carter, president of Anne Arundel’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the stamp would be promoted in society newsletters, which go out to thousands of members.
Carter supported the bill, but said if the legislation called for funds to come from black bear hunting fees, her organization would oppose it.
The bill leaves open the possibility of a hunt. It instructs the DNR to “implement all the recommendations of the Black Bear Task Force presented in September 1995” in the event that the black bear reaches “carrying capacity” — an environmentalists’ term referring to the ability of an ecosystem to support any one species.
That Black Bear Task Force, which included local farmers, biologists and wildlife advocates, recommended a hunt. However, hunting was opposed by a majority of Maryland citizens at the public meetings that followed the panel’s report.
Edwards said that a “limited hunt” may yet be needed. Farmer compensation funds could be increased through a lottery system that charged hunters money for licenses permitting them to kill a set number of bears, he said.
Sandt said that a DNR study about three years ago found that 200 bears lived in Western Maryland, but added that the number has most likely risen.
Total regional population — encompassing West Virginia, Western Maryland and Pennsylvania — could “very easily” be 5,000 to 6,000, Sandt said.
The bear is primarily vegetarian, but omnivorous in its diet.
“They’ll take advantage of anything man has grown,” Sandt said. “They’ll eat anything that won’t eat them back again.”
Black bears love honey and will feed in corn crops, and on a rare occasion, livestock such as sheep and calves. And, that, Sandt said, is when “they become a nuisance to a lot of land owners.”
Overall, Sandt said the DNR’s goal “is to maintain their population,” reasoning that the black bears “are native species in Maryland.” He added that it’s a thrill for hikers to see one, although they may be frightened. The bears, Sandt said, “add greatly to the outdoor experience.” -30-