WASHINGTON – Garrett County Farm Bureau President Brooks Hamilton Jr. has a suggestion for people in other parts of the state who don’t understand the problems caused by Western Maryland’s resurgent black bear population.
“We’d like to donate a couple [of bears] to each county and maybe we’ll get something done,” said Hamilton, who backs a limited hunting season on bears.
But opponents of the hotly contested proposal say the problems caused by bears — crop damage, scattered trash and some livestock kills — should not be solved by killing the animals. Animal rights activists and conservation groups say people need to learn to live with bears, not kill them for sport.
“It is a very, very touchy situation,” said Spaulding Goetze, who is caught in the crosshairs of the debate as chairman of the Maryland Wildlife Advisory Commission.
The commission, which makes recommendations to the Department of Natural Resources, accepted a proposal last week from the Maryland Sportsmen’s Association for a limited bear hunt.
The proposal calls for a two-day limited bear season in Garrett and Allegany counties, with hunters chosen through a lottery system. Each hunter would only be allowed one bear, said Larry Albright, president of the sportsmen’s group.
Albright and others who support a bear season say it would help control a bear population that has doubled in the last five years, with the resulting increase in bear-human encounters.
State wildlife officials estimate some 400 bears are in the state at any time, roaming across the mountainous borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. The average adult male bear covers about 25 square miles, said state bear biologist Steve Bittner.
Goetze said Maryland’s bears are just a segment of thousands of bears in the four-state region. All but Maryland have bear seasons.
“All Marylanders should look at this bear situation as part of this range area,” he said.
Farmers say bears will eat crops and trample them, rolling around in the center of a field of corn or barley. Sometimes they kill livestock. Beekeepers say bears steal honey and destroy hives.
Bears caused an estimated $49,782 in damage in 1997, the worst year so far. The DNR, which administers a compensation fund, said damage claims for 1999 are far lower, at just over $10,000.
The state-run compensation fund to reimburse farmers and beekeepers only has about $7,300 now, however, and state officials concede that they typically only pay back about 42 cents on every dollar in bear damages.
Crop damage from bears is severe enough that the Maryland Farm Bureau has sent a letter in support of a limited bear season.
But farmers said lack of compensation is only part of the problem, since the state must investigate all damage claims and not all are chalked up to bears.
Lee Shillingburg, a sheep and cattle farmer near Oakland, said he has lost 106 sheep in recent years. He is certain that quite a few were killed by bears, but said he often does not find a sheep carcass until it has been consumed beyond the point that DNR technicians can determine what killed it.
“If you can find a bear on the sheep and take a video,” Shillingburg said, DNR will trap or kill it. Farmers cannot kill bears themselves.
Bittner said the state has killed two bears for “depredation of livestock,” including one who had killed Shillingburg’s sheep. The state last killed a bear four or five years ago, he said.
Albright said his group’s proposal would help solve part of the problem by funding the compensation fund from a nonrefundable fee from hunters who sign up for the bear-hunting lottery.
The last time Maryland had a bear season was 1953. The sportsmen’s association would like a bear season to start within the next year, according to its proposal, but a DNR spokesman said it is doubtful that a decision would be reached that soon.
Any time is too soon for Joseph Lamp, an animal rights activist who sits on the Wildlife Advisory Commission.
While he wants to help residents who have suffered from bear damage, Lamp said killing bears is not the solution.
“I realize they’re right there in the supposed belly of the beast,” he said of Western Maryland residents. “But we’ve got to realize that Maryland’s wildlife belongs to everybody. They are not the keepers of the bears.
“They elected to live out there and that’s where the bears are. I elect to live in a suburban area and I have other things to deal with,” like traffic, he said.