The largest forest game animal in Maryland is the black bear. There is no hunting season for this shy yet potentially dangerous resident of Western Maryland.
But a limited season is being looked at carefully by the Department of Natural Resources, which hopes to present a draft management plan to the public during two meetings expected to be scheduled for the middle of January.
Before one begins to schedule scouting trips to Garrett and Allegany counties, however, western region wildlife manager Tom Mathews said recently that there is no guarantee that a hunting season will be included in regulations for 1992-93.
"That was an initial proposal, but it is not for me to say whether that is still active," said Mathews, who has been involved in the state's research of the black bear population since 1987. "I would say that one of the objectives of our black bear management plan is to hunt them when we feel that the population is huntable as far as numbers and its recruitment rate."
In other words, the state still has to determine whether there are enough bears of varying ages to ensure there will be a continuing population of resident bears in western Allegany and Garrett counties.
Maryland has not had a black bear season since 1953. In 1972, the black bear was classified as an endangered species in TC Maryland, and, in 1980, it was reclassified as a nongame species of special concern.
In 1985, the black bear was reclassified again and made a forest game species, although no hunting season was established.
The protections afforded the black bear are paying off.
During the past 30 years, the quality of black bear habitat in the western areas of the state has improved dramatically, and a Pennsylvania program several years ago apparently provided the opportunity for Maryland's resident population to expand into extended areas of mature hardwood forest. In the past 10 years, Mathews said, the black bear has made a marked comeback.
"Back in the late 1970s, the state of Pennsylvania had a novel approach to expanding their range of black bears," Mathews said. "They took pregnant female bears from the northwestern part of the state and the northeastern Poconos area and brought these bears down in the pre-birthing time -- like around Christmas."
The result may prove to be an unusual present for Maryland hunters.
By putting the pregnant bears on new range in the winter, roughly a month before they would give birth, the program counteracted a strong instinct to return to their former range. A sow with newborn cubs would be compelled to remain in its new location at least until its young had been raised.
"From that effort in nearby Pennsylvania close to Garrett and Allegany counties, we have retrieved a lot of Pennsylvania-tagged bears," Mathews said. "In fact, two of our oldest radio-collared sows at this point were initially tagged as cubs in Somerset County, Pa."
So, combine that novel approach with the succession of the forests and greater production of mast (fallen food on the forest floor), and you get conditions that are prime for an expanding bear population.
For three months this summer, Mathews and DNR staff conducted an intensive trapping, tagging and recapture study to further redefine their population estimate. The study this year involved 19 bears.
"That information is now being analyzed," Mathews said. "But we are probably looking at a resident population of 150 to 175 bears in western Allegany and Garrett counties."
According to a black bear fact sheet the DNR released last year, the range of this animal extends into Washington County and perhaps Frederick County, but the bulk of the bears reside in the far western portions of the state.
Before this year's trapping and tagging study, 68 black bears had been tagged in Garrett County, and 10 females were fitted with radio collars and tracked to winter dens to document reproductive rates.
Those 10 females produced an average of three cubs every other year, according to the DNR, which is a high reproductive rate when compared to other states.
According to the fact sheet, nuisance complaints concerning bears increased four-fold between 1984 and 1990. Since 1986, when the public was first encouraged to report bear sightings, the number has ranged from a low of 113 in 1988 to a high of 193 in 1989.
In Garrett County, sightings have become so commonplace that many residents no longer report them.
But that is not to say the woods are crawling with bears. There are black bears in residence and that population apparently is expanding. The key is to find what level of population the human residents of Western Maryland will bear, so to speak.
If more bears are preying on beehives, crops or sheep herds, then probably the population will have to be culled.
"If we are going to have to take bears out of this population," Mathews said, "we want to do that by sport hunting."
Next month, we may get a pretty good look at what the prospects are.
The two meetings tentatively will be held in Garrett County and Annapolis. Dates have not been determined.