This species bears watching

April 11, 1994

Maryland's black bear population is healthy and thriving, state wildlife experts report, which is good news for all of us.

Nothing so embodies our atavistic sense of wilderness, the kinship with nature's other creatures, than the bear. Indian cultures saw their humanness mirrored in the people-sized mammal that sometimes stands on two legs; the black bear's paw print looks remarkably like that of a flat-footed man wearing moccasins.

The black bear is quintessentially American, as its scientific name ursus Americanus denotes. In the isolated woods and wetlands of Western Maryland, nearly 200 of them have found hospitable habitat.

The bear's main threat, as for many wild species, is human competition. Bears are a dangerous nuisance when drawn to human agriculture and foodstuffs. Development shrinks and confines habitat for the solitary creatures. Even too many nature lovers drawn to its range may disturb the bear's natural activities. Historic problems of bear management at Yellowstone National Park -- too many friendly garbage-eating bears that eventually threatened human visitors -- illustrate the biologists' dilemma.

Using ear tags and radio collars, Maryland scientists are tracking the bears' ranges to better manage and protect their homelands. There is little room for more than the current population in Maryland, wildlife managers say, which means that existing habitat must be sustained. Bears need from 10 to 50 square miles of home range to thrive, a land requirement that poses ready conflict with human development ambitions. Tagged Maryland bears have been legally killed by hunters in Pennsylvania, for example.

The black bear is not an endangered species. It nearly disappeared in Maryland several decades ago, but recovered under human management. Current research will further the state's program to maintain the natural population, keeping these shy, nocturnal animals in safe, distant human sight without exposing them to a hunting season.

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