Bears bounce back, to dismay of some Beekeeper moves hives out of state

July 23, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

Charles O. Smith, who runs Maryland's largest beekeeping operation, packed up most of his beehives this spring and moved them to rural Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware.

Why? Because black bears, which nearly disappeared from the state's mountain woodlands just a few decades ago, have ravaged his beehives in Garrett and other Western Maryland counties for honey and unhatched bees the past two springs.

"You used to hardly ever see deer around here," says Mr. Smith, a retired machine operator who lives in Boonsboro, Washington County. "Now they're everywhere. The same thing is going to happen to bears. I don't mind seeing a bear once in a while, but to beekeepers and farmers they're nuisances."

Mr. Smith's concerns are among those state wildlife officials are keeping in mind as they set priorities to manage Maryland's growing bear population. About 150 to 175 black bears now roam Western Maryland, primarily in Garrett and Allegany counties.

"In Western Maryland, you sometimes hear that one bear is one bear too many," says Tom Mathews, a regional wildlife manager for the Department of Natural Resources. "They do damage beehives and cornfields and that's the anti-bear sentiment, if you will."

But, he adds, "Our job is to manage the species for the benefit of all Marylanders."

Black bears once roamed all of Maryland. Then westward expansion, extensive farming, fires and logging pushed the carnivorous animal nearly out of existence. As few as 12 bears existed in Western Maryland in the mid-1950s. Bears were named an endangered species in 1972.

As the bear population began to rebound, the state upgraded black bears' status to a "forest game" species because of concerns that their numbers might grow beyond public tolerance. "Forest game" status would allow hunting as a means of controlling the population, though DNR officials say they have no plans to permit hunting.

Their re-emergence in Western Maryland has been bolstered by the migration of bears from neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where they number in the thousands. Maryland's maturing forests and swamps have provided an ideal habitat.

"A lot of people feel that no other species represents the return of wildlife to Maryland more so than the black bear," Mr. Mathews says.

One of the benefits of bears is that they afford recreational opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, including hunters, hikers and photographers. Each year, there are 150 to 200 reported bear sightings in Western Maryland, including Washington and Frederick counties.

"We're told that just to see a bear in the wild is one of the most enjoyable outdoor experiences hikers and others have had," Mr. Mathews says.

Their growing numbers, though, pose problems for both humans and bears.

Besides damaging beehives and crops, bears sometimes annoy homeowners by raiding trash cans when their food sources are scarce. Human tolerance for bears may be low because of their "ferocious image," DNR officials say.

Public education a priority

And as development occurs in Western Maryland, bear habitat is lost. Bears thrive in extensive forests with a variety of fruit- and nut-producing plants.

DNR officials are trying to accommodate all these concerns as they try to establish priorities in a recently completed management plan, Mr. Mathews says.

recent survey showed that the public knew little about bears, prompting the state to make public education a priority in its management plan, Mr. Mathews says.

"There's a lot of misinformation," he says. "We need more public awareness to dispel myths and [to teach people] how to live and coexist with bears. Our number one priority is education."

Within the next year, DNR will distribute 50,000 brochures, "Living With Maryland's Black Bears," to state parks and other sites. Other priorities are to continue research into bear habitat, develop a bear nuisance strategy and manage the population with current information.

Working with graduate students at Frostburg State University, DNR officials have been trapping and tagging bears and monitoring their movements by radio collars for three years.

"They're fascinating animals," says Howard Quigley, a Frostburg State University biology professor. "They've survived in areas where other wildlife haven't been able to. We don't have mountain lions or wolves in our back yards anymore but we have black bears.

"They're viewed as a potential threat by human beings," he adds.

Black bears rarely attack people. Although bears weigh anywhere from 125 to 500 pounds and stand from 50 to 80 inches in height, they are generally docile animals and have a natural fear of man, DNR officials say. One of DNR's priorities is to educate people not to feed bears because officials don't want "bears to associate people with food."

Maintaining old forests for bear habitat is a concern of Dan Boone, a member of Maryland Advocates for Public Lands, a coalition of state conservation groups.

"If Maryland is ever going to adopt a hunting policy, the state should have a sanctuary system where black bears can keep concentration of female bears to restock the population," Mr. Boone says. "Our public lands would be the best place for that."

No plans to allow hunting

Bears have not been hunted in Maryland since the early 1950s. Mr. Mathews says DNR has no plans to propose any type of bear hunting in 1994.

Although the population is healthy and expanding, the state loses about 10 percent of its bears each year because of highway deaths and poaching, Mr. Mathews says. Bears also reproduce slowly. Sows give birth to a litter of two or three cubs every other year.

Hunters generally support DNR's stance.

"We don't recommend any hunting until there's another over-abundance of bears," says Firman Kistler Jr., a Parkville resident who is president of the Maryland Bowhunters Society. "We're probably years down the road from that."

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