The Department of Natural Resources has completed a management plan for black bears in Maryland and in the process DNR seems to have found that the possibility of a hunting season for the state's largest game animal has been diminished for the time being.
"If you had asked me a year ago or two years ago whether we were close to having a season or being able to control the population, I would have said yes," said Joshua Sandt, director of the DNR's Wildlife Division. "Now I can't say that."
The reason is that people in Garrett and western Allegany counties are learning more about the black bear and apparently becoming more tolerant of its reclusive lifestyle.
DNR studies indicate that there are between 150 and 170 black bears in Western Maryland, with the greatest number in Garrett County and the species population diminishing dramatically eastward through Allegany, Washington and Frederick counties.
In all, there are some 2,200 square miles of occupied or potential bear habitat in Western Maryland, which represents a little more than 20 percent of Maryland's land mass.
"Biologically, that habitat could support probably twice as many bears as we have right now," Sandt said. "It is just like deer -- biologically, we could support twice as many deer as we have right now. But people won't tolerate that."
The level of human tolerance -- or cultural carrying capacity, as it is called by biologists and wildlife managers -- is crucial in determining how the black bear population will be managed.
The black bear management plan, written by Forest Wildlife Program research biologist Nathan P. Garner and Western Regional Wildlife Manager Thomas P. Mathews(cq), is a 10-year prognosis of what should be done to ensure that black bears can and will be a continuing part of the ecosystem in Maryland's hardwood forests.
The plan identifies two long-term goals -- to manage the bear as a wildlife species in suitable habitat and in a manner compatible with other land uses, and to provide recreational opportunity -- and eight management objectives, including a hunting season at some point.
The No. 1 management objective is to provide information and education for people who are likely to have some interaction with bears -- landowners, hikers, campers, etc.
In public hearings and education sessions this year and last year, Sandt said, there were two general reactions from the public about bears.
"One is [that people] love seeing them, it is neat, it is probably the greatest experience they ever have had out in the wild," Sandt said. "The other experience is that they are scared to death."
In the extreme, Sandt said, mothers have come forward and said they were afraid to let their children out in the backyard because a neighbor saw a bear.
"Over time, through a lot of our educational efforts, they are realizing that it isn't a grizzly bear that they have up there," Sandt said. "It is a black bear, which is just a big raccoon, and it is kind of a neat animal to have around -- unless you happen to get between a sow and a cub or something like that."
A more likely interaction is on the part of landowners who have experienced crop or property damage by nuisance bears. But even then there seems to be more tolerance.
Last year in Garrett County, there were only 10 nuisance complaints. "Which tells us that the tolerance level has increased," Sandt said.
Last year, $4,000 in property or crop damage was reported.
So, for the time being, at least, there seems to be no urgency to initiate a hunting season on black bear. But it is reasonably certain that one will be started within the next few years.
The bear population has been increasing in Western Maryland since the 1970s, and without natural predators or severe climatic conditions, it can be expected to continue to increase somewhat.
"We have have mortality factors going on in the population right now -- some illegal kills, some being killed by cars, we have cub mortality, which is natural," Sandt said. "Those factors alone may keep the population somewhere around 200."
The DNR has scheduled two public informational meetings to discuss the black bear management plan. On Tuesday, Feb. 4, a meeting will be held at Northern High School on Route 219 in Garrett County. On Wednesday, Feb. 5, the second meeting will be held at the visitors' center at Seneca Creek State Park, 11950 Clopper Road in Gaithersburg, Montgomery County. Both meetings are scheduled to run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Bears in Maryland
Early 1600s -- When Europeans first settled here, bears were abundant throughout Maryland's mountains and coastal plain. As settlers cleared the land, they destroyed the black bear's habitat.
1728 and 1744 -- Legislation in the colony of Maryland to establish a bounty on bears in Somerset and Worcester counties.