ANNAPOLIS – When the comments were counted, the total was five to one against starting a bear hunt, but the Black Bear Task Force voted to recommend one anyway when it met Thursday afternoon.
The task force finalized its major recommendations to the Department of Natural Resources at the meeting, and will likely issue its final draft at its next meeting Feb. 27.
Most of the more than 500 comments collected by the task force focused on its recommendation to institute a limited bear hunt, said Harry Spiker, the DNR’s black bear project leader.
Recommendations will not include specific details about how large a hunt to implement, Spiker said.
“That’ll take some looking into,” he said. “The first time we implement a hunt, (the numbers will) be speculative.”
The meeting ran half an hour late as task force members argued whether to support a hunt, he said.
“A long meeting, to not come out with anything in the way of new results,” Spiker said.
In 2000, the DNR estimated there were between 266 and 437 bears spread across Allegany, Frederick, Garrett and Washington counties. A 1991 survey of bears on public lands in Garrett County in 1991 estimated that population at between 70 and 170 animals.
Problem bears, which eat crops, pillage trash cans and raid beehives, were central to the debate.
Hunting opponents claimed a bear season would be indiscriminant, and fail to target individual nuisance bears.
Hunting foes favor continuing the current plan of educating people and frightening bears away from crops and beehives with sirens and electric fences, said Mike Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals.
Markarian, a task force member, voted against the hunting recommendation.
“The key is conflict management,” Markarian said. “A hunting season would be nothing more than a recreational opportunity to hunt bears for sport and trophies.”
No one knows exactly what would happen if a hunt were to take place, said Steve Huettner, president of the Maryland Sportsmen’s Association, but it would deal with the underlying problem of bears approaching humans.
“The one thing it would do is create aversion to humans,” he said. “Bears would realize that humans aren’t someone they should be interacting with.”
Another sticking point was the matter of compensating farmers for damage bears do to their crops, which the General Assembly mandated in 1996.
Between 1996 and 2001, farmers filed an average of $22,880 in annual bear damage claims with the DNR, but the agency only paid an average of $11,734 during each of those years.
By comparison, although hunters killed more than 60,000 deer during the 1996 season, the roughly 240,000 deer in Maryland caused about $38 million in crop damage in 1996.
The DNR does not pay for deer damage, only for damage caused by bears, said Spiker, largely because farmers have little recourse with bear, while they are permitted to hunt deer. But bear payments would have to continue even if the department created a hunting season.
“That’s a tough issue because it’s mandated through the Legislature,” Spiker said. “The department has no option but to keep on going through with it.”
Sales of teddy bears, bear stamps, T-shirts and hats through the Black Bear Conservation program were supposed to compensate farmers, Spiker said, but the program hasn’t been very successful, and hasn’t covered all the payments.
The conservation program would bring in more money if the department promoted it more widely, said John Hadidian, director of the Humane Society of the United States’ Urban Wildlife Program. A lottery for bear hunting permits could fill the compensation fund, said Huettner, and pay for other bear management activities, such as research and education.