Scientists keep tabs on thriving Md. bear population

April 03, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

OAKLAND -- On one of their last late-winter treks to the dens of hibernating black bears in the Western Maryland woods, wildlife biologists near here found just what they expected: healthy sets of cubs.

The first cubs -- both males about 2 months old -- were pulled from their sedated 235-pound mother in a clump of felled trees in Potomac-Garrett State Forest several miles southeast of Oakland.

The cubs were the third set for the 10-year-old bear with ear tag No. 14. The bear was tagged and radio-collared in 1989 after deer hunters found her hibernating in an abandoned strip mine nearby.

She has been followed and her dens checked ever since.

As usual, biologists weighed the cubs and tagged their ears before returning them to the protective cover of their sleeping mother.

"This is a cute little bugger," Terry DeWitt, a wildlife technician with the state Department of Natural Resources, said while stapling a metal tag to the ear of a cub. "It hurts just a little; it's kind of like getting your ear pierced."

By tagging cubs, DNR officials are able to keep tabs on the dispersal of Maryland's black bears, their longevity and mortality factors. Last year, for instance, four tagged bears were killed in legal hunting in neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Maryland's black bear population -- estimated at 175 to 200 -- is healthy and thriving. The isolated woods, swamps and wetlands of Garrett County and western Allegany County have proved to be suitable habitats for the shy, solitary creatures.

"The quality of habitat is about as good as it gets," said Thomas P. Mathews, a wildlife manager for DNR's Wildlife Division.

"The future of black bears in Maryland will depend on how we manage habitat and minimize man's impact on the land."

To what extent further tagging, radio tracking and other research will continue will be determined in the fall after two Frostburg State University graduate students complete a four-year habitat study.

Using telemetry equipment, the students tracked a number of radio-collared bears from April through November over the mountains and through the woods of Garrett and Allegany counties.

"What we learn from their work will lay the groundwork for continuing research," Mr. Mathews said.

The research has been part of the state's effort to manage the black bear as a wildlife species. A recently completed Maryland Black Bear Management Plans calls, among other things, for increased public education about bears, continued monitoring of the population, limited research and a regulated hunting season.

Mr. Mathews cautioned, however, that a regulated hunting season is unlikely "in the near future." There is both widespread support and opposition to bear hunting, DNR officials said.

bTC Of particular concern in protecting the bear population is maintaining the limited habitat available on public and private lands. Encroaching development, particularly around tourist-driven Deep Creek Lake, is destroying much of the private habitat that is still available.

From recent research, wildlife officials have learned that female bears rearing cubs shy away from traveled roadways and rarely cross roads, remaining in isolated woods, swamps and wetlands.

Bears require large home ranges. Females bears require 10 to 15 square miles, and male bears need 60 to 80 square miles.

Because of the state's limited habitat, it is unlikely that Maryland could sustain a much larger bear population, said Joshua Sandt, director of DNR's Wildlife Division. The population has rebounded and stabilized after nearly disappearing a few decades ago.

"We think we can keep the bear population if we manage it at an acceptable level. We can't say hands off and let bears do what they want to do," Mr. Sandt said.

"We have an opportunity to maintain bears, but not in the numbers you would find in a wilderness area."

"People tolerance" also must be considered, Mr. Sandt said. Bears can be nuisances to farmers, destroying crops and beehives. DNR officials have tried to rectify that situation by helping beekeepers erect fences and by trapping and relocating nuisance bears.

But there is also the greater public to consider. As a wildlife species, black bears are a concern to many across the state. They provide a lure for hikers, photographers and tourists.

"No other species signifies the feeling of wilderness as much as the black bear," Mr. Mathews said. Research and efforts to sustain habitat should put Maryland in a "better position to manage this species in the future," he said.

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