ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s wildlife officials respond to a number of nuisance bear incidents, but one this summer in Garrett County was the most unusual.
A cub crawled through the open window of a car parked near Deep Creek Lake, and ate a peanut butter sandwich sitting inside. Then it couldn’t find its way out. The bear escaped by breaking a window.
The car owner got a warning: “We told him not to leave his window open in that area,” said Clarissa Harris, a regional wildlife response coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources.
Nuisance bear calls like this have prompted a movement in the Maryland General Assembly to control the growing bear population in the state.
Under a bill in the House of Delegates, the Department of Natural Resources would be required to adopt regulations for a limited black bear hunting season to control the growing bruin population. The law now prohibits killing bears except in the case of self-defense or protecting livestock.
“It’s the main topic of discussion where I live,” said Delegate George Edwards, R-Garrett. “We’ve had homes and automobiles broken into. We’ve had a lot of close encounters.”
A request from House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, and all the bear complaints prompted Edwards to dust off his 1997 bear hunting bill, which failed then for lack of support.
Taylor is now a co-sponsor, along with House Environmental Matters Committee Chairman John A. Hurson, D-Montgomery, and George W. Owings III, D- Anne Arundel, chairman of the House Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Subcommittee. The bill is scheduled to come before the Environmental Matters Committee Wednesday.
Black bear in Maryland reside mainly in the far west, generally in Garrett and Allegany counties, which border bear-populated West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The number of bears ranges between 266 to 437 in Western Maryland, or 27.3 bears per 100 square miles, according to a 2000 survey by the Department of Natural Resources. That’s an increase from a 1991 estimate of 79 to 167 bears in Garrett County, said Harry Spiker, a bear project leader for the department’s Wildlife and Heritage Service.
In Pennsylvania counties bordering Western Maryland, there are 21.7 bears per 100 square miles, Spiker said. The commonwealth has a statewide bear hunting season, while Virginia and West Virginia have limited seasons.
Nuisance complaints also have jumped since 1996, when the department began tracking bear-related complaints, from 196 to 386 last year, Spiker said. There have been no reported bear-related injuries in the state, he said.
The department handles nuisance complaints with nonlethal tactics, such as conditioning bear to stay away from trash cans, using loud sounds to scare the animals away and keeping food indoors.
In 1995, a bear task force recommended, without the full support of its members, that the Department of Natural Resources consider a limited bear hunt. The department has had the authority to declare a bear hunting season since 1985 but has not done so, Spiker said.
Lawmakers are following up on the task force’s recommendation, Owings said.
“I think the bill is drafted to the degree, while offensive to the animal rights people, it serves a useful purpose to regulate the size of the bear population,” he said.
The bill would allow the Department of Natural Resources to establish a lottery to issue hunting stamps, with proceeds going to the State Wildlife Management and Protection Fund. Details, such as the number of hunting stamps distributed and the location and time of the hunts, would be up to the department’s discretion.
But like a bill allowing Sunday deer hunts, the bear hunt bill has animal rights groups mobilizing opposition. Activists said Maryland’s bear population is not as high as some claim, and nuisance complaints are mostly bear sightings.
“The simple answer is that the number of bears does not justify a hunt to control a population,” said Jeff Leitner, with the Silver Spring-based Fund for Animals. “The people in Maryland haven’t learned to live with bears because we haven’t had them in the state.”
Black bears, Leitner said, also suffer from a public relations problem. Since the number of bear incidents are so low, an incident as simple as the animal getting into a trash can makes the local news, he said.
Hunters, however, see the issue differently. They say a limited bear hunting season would solve a problem and raise money for the Department of Natural Resources’ fund to reimburse residents for damage caused by bears.
“We support it because there is a problem with bears,” said Terry Harman, vice president of the Western Maryland district of the Maryland Sportsmen Association. “It’s not for trophy hunting. You’ve got bears up there, damaging property and running in front of cars like deer.”
Butch Sutphin, 52, a 32-year bear hunter from Davidsonville, favors a limited hunting season in Maryland. He’s been traveling to Alaska, British Columbia or Canada for the last 25 years to hunt black bear, with each trip costing between $3,000 and $10,000.
“It would be the smartest thing in the world Maryland could do,” Sutphin said. “They could generate millions of dollars, and every big game hunter in the state would certainly put in $10 or $20 or $50 for an opportunity.”