5/8 TC A little more than five years ago in Western Maryland, black bears were beginning to make a comeback. Sightings were up and Garrett County was deemed the hub of bear activity, but state wildlife officials, with none of these bears yet radio-collared, still could only guess how many roamed the state.
After just completing their fifth winter den check on radio-collared sows, state officials decided to limit the bear hunting season for 1992, confidently managing black bears as a forest game species under the state's first comprehensive bear management plan.
Based on this research and recent checks on two radio-collared sows, which produced seven new cubs this winter, wildlife biologists can report a healthy and productive population as well as a more accurate census.
"We've probably got a resident population of between 150 and 170 bears," said Tom Mathews western regional wildlife manager who led a three-hour expedition in Garrett County last month to check on a radio-collared bear expecting a litter this past winter. Such expeditions have provided useful information on black bears, which reproduce every other year. Sows residing in Maryland, for example, have a reproductive rate of 3.1 cubs each.
Aided by radio telemetry, natural resources technician Terry DeWitt and Tracy Wren, a Frostburg State University graduate student who has been monitoring two radio-collared females with yearlings throughout last summer and fall, Mathews was able to locate the sow. She was sheltered beside a log in a shallow surface den with three, two-month-old cubs tucked beneath her.
Within 35 minutes, Mathews and DeWitt had temporarily immobilized the sow with special drugs on a jab stick, retrieved three cubs -- two males, one female -- and performed a routine health check. A new transmitter was placed on the mother, and the cubs were measured, weighed in at six pounds each and ear-tagged.
Then came a photo session, as everyone took turns holding the cubs. Invited spectators soon learned young claws spoil the teddy-bear image, but not the thrill of meeting wildlife face to face.
Involving the public in wildlife activities has been important to the state's overall educational and public information thrust. The management plan is partially a product of six public black bear workshops held throughout the state.
At two February informational hearings, one in Garrett County and one in Montgomery County, public attitudes varied widely, from allowing the population to build without interference to the extreme, unlimited hunting. Animal rights activists protested even the notion of a potential bear hunt in Western Maryland at the Montgomery hearing. In Garrett County, the board of county commissioners endorsed limited hunting to help curb crop damage on local farms.
The management plan thus adopted two specific goals: (1) to manage the black bear as a native wildlife species in Western Maryland where suitable habitats exist and it is compatible with other land uses; and (2) to manage black bears in order to provide wildlife recreational opportunity. These goals are based on the dramatic increase in the state's black bear population in the last decade and the fact that hunting is important in the success of wildlife management programs, especially large animals.
"We are set up for a [hunting] season, but that's not saying we're going to start one any time soon," said Ed Golden, manager of the forest wildlife program.
"We could negatively impact on the population, if we allowed hunting now," said Mathews, alluding to the concept of biological carrying capacities. That's the maximum number of bears than a given habitat can support.
"We don't know what it even is yet," said Mathews. "We haven't been dealing with the bears long enough."
But they have gathered data long enough to determine population, distribution, habitat preference and reproductive potential. They keep tabs on bear mortality through cub and yearling checks and by monitoring road-killed bears. Records are kept on public sightings, nuisance calls and illegal kills. But these statistics don't provide all the answers.
"Nuisance calls and sightings were down in 1991, and yet some were still calling for a bear season," said Golden. "Sightings may have declined because bears, especially in Garrett County, are becoming more commonplace."
And for nuisance complaints? Officials speculate that an abundant natural food supply of soft mast (fruits and berries) may have reduced encounters between bears and people.
More and more, it seems, wildlife management today is really a matter of people management.