FROSTBURG – They traveled from as far away as Worcester County, driving for hours to participate in Maryland’s first black bear hunt in 51 years.
One pair came from Prince George’s the week before to scout the best spots. Others took a couple days off work for a shot at the slight chance of killing a bear, for its hide, head or meat.
But by Tuesday morning, the second day, anyone who called the Department of Natural Resources’ bear hotline would have heard the same message: “The black bear hunt is officially closed . . . due to an overwhelming first-day success.”
After 20 kills Monday, the state called off the hunt, which could have lasted through Saturday and into December, fearing another day would risk exceeding the state’s mandated 30-bear limit. Months of controversy led to a one-day affair that left some state officials confirming its need, some protestors still decrying the hunt and some hunters exiting empty-handed.
“I was very surprised, very. Very disappointed,” said Erich Scheman, after returning home to Baltimore County. He hunted all day Monday without catching, or even seeing, a bear.
So many bears were caught the first day, said Heidi Prescott, national director for the Fund for Animals, because they were “vulnerable” and not used to being hunted.
“We believe that no bears should be hunted in Maryland,” Prescott said, “but it certainly was a tragedy that a young bear that hadn’t even left its mother yet was the first to be killed.”
Prescott referred to the 84-pound, 10-month-old female, shot by David Ciekot early Monday morning.
The largest bear taken weighed in at 496 pounds, and the average weight of the 11 males and 9 females killed was 178.4 pounds.
“The fact that it started and ended in a day took us a little bit by surprise,” said Harry Spiker, DNR’s black bear project leader.
“I think that really goes along with what we’ve been saying all along – we do have a dense bear population here.”
Regarding the small size of the first bear checked in, he said, “We want to stabilize the population growth, and to do that it doesn’t matter whether it’s an 80-pound bear or a 400-pound bear. It achieves the same goal for us.”
The state called for the hunt because bear-related nuisance complaints were increasing, and dozens of bears were being run down by cars.
“All 20 bears were taken within half a mile from a public road,” said Paul Peditto, director of the DNR’s Wildlife and Heritage Service. And most – 80 percent – were taken from private land.
The DNR reports about 400 bears residing in the hunting region, and 500 statewide.
Another hunt is planned for next year, though the DNR will review the terms.
That prospect has the Humane Society and the Fund for Animals stalwart in their opposition.
“We’re going to redouble our efforts to stop a trophy hunt (of bears) from ever taking place again in the state of Maryland,” said Pierre Grzybowski, grassroots coordinator for the Fund.
The groups’ opposition this year failed to even delay Monday’s hunt. A judge rejected their request to halt the harvest in a suit filed a month ago and a Sunday-night vigil outside the governor’s residence elicited no response.
Photographers from those organizations attempting to document the hunt were later denied access to weigh stations in Western Maryland, said Grzybowski.
According to Michael Markarian, president of the Fund, bears are not overpopulated.
“It took us half a century to get up to a few hundred animals,” he said last week.
“The only justification is Governor Ehrlich wants his buddies to kill bears for trophies,” said Markarian.
The governor’s office has called that claim “ridiculous.”
Many hunters said they traveled to Allegany and Garrett counties to help manage the population, and not just to bag a trophy.
Scheman said he sympathized with landowners whose crops and property were being damaged by bears.
“You would think hunting 30 at a time would have some kind of impact,” he said.
But some of those 381 hunters also admitted to relishing the rare opportunity.
Don and Kate Gemeny, of Prince George’s, said they would have the whole bear mounted if their hunt was successful.
Denis Witmer, from Worcester, said he might eat the meat – “It’s a unique flavor.”
These thrills, the Fund maintains, came at too high a cost. “This trophy hunt didn’t solve the nuisance problem,” said Grzybowski. “It didn’t teach people how to coexist with bears, and it didn’t reimburse farmers for damage to their crops.”