Getting Closer to Nature than Anyone Had Planned

July 24, 1994|By GLENN TOLBERT

It wasn't until the black mass on the gravel road began ambling toward her that Sherry Frantz began to run.

"I couldn't quite figure out what it was at first. I'm nearsighted anyway. But when it began coming toward me, it became obvious I was about to have my first face-to-face with a black bear," she recounted.

Ms. Frantz, 44, a native of Garrett County, knew that one of the basic rules of meeting bears face-to-face is not to run. "My head knew to either stay put or walk away slowly. But my legs wouldn't listen," she said. "Luckily it all turned out OK. I made it home intact, though my heart was in my throat."

Since that close encounter, Ms. Frantz -- who had come to relish the sight of bears, especially those accompanied by cubs, strolling through her front yard -- experienced a different reaction. But that "heart in throat" experience is being shared by more and more Marylanders as the resurgence of once endangered species continues to be a success story.

Based on bear trapping and tagging data collected during the past five years, Maryland's black bear population is estimated to be between 150 and 170. Those are startling population figures when as few as 50 years ago the black bear was considered extinct in the state.

The return of the black bear is a success story prompting some philosophical discussions about man's relationship with other creatures.

"We get calls from people saying things like, 'There's a wild animal in my backyard.' But what people don't realize is that we're in their front yard," says Gary Yoder, Western Maryland's regional liaison for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Since the protection of black bears and their habitat in the western mountains of the state became policy, Mr. Yoder and his colleagues have had to deal with questions from some residents who have asked why the powerful animals should be allowed to roam "their" woods.

Some state officials say that the encounters with bears and other wildlife are increasing because habitats are recovering through programs that put large land areas under protection and because man is moving closer to those areas. As one naturalist put it, "Bears don't read zoning ordinances."

"It always intrigues me that people buy a cabin in the woods to get close to nature and then complain when a bear wanders through to check out the garbage," says Mr. Yoder. "People should be able to acknowledge the fact that the bear is there because they've moved to a place pristine enough to support wildlife."

Richard Skipper has no doubt that Maryland's natural regions are again capable of supporting the wildlife once decimated by man. His confirmation came in a face-off with a 195-pound cougar.

Mr. Skipper, a professional surveyor with an Oakland-based engineering firm, says the image of the huge cat's face less than 50 feet away is forever burned into his brain.

"I was completely astonished. It began when dogs started barking. I was worried they were after some of our sheep so I followed them. That's when a mountain lion came heading right at me. Behind him were the dogs."

Mr. Skipper followed the sounds of the animals on their chase through the woods. He found one of the dogs lying wounded near a pile of slab wood. A trail of blood dribbled into the woods. "I followed the blood. That's when I saw the cougar again. It had walked into some grapevines and then disappeared."

Tales of big cats in the hills of Western Maryland have been circulating for years. Theories on how they may have come back to Maryland range from escaped pets to a natural migration from other states.

While no cougar bodies have been offered for proof, one local resident has a home video of what appears to be a quick glimpse of a big cat.

*

Three counties east, the natural environment in Frederick County's community of Lake Linganore is nurturing a man/nature controversy that has exploded onto regional television screens and the front pages of national publications.

The centerpiece of the controversy is the roof of Joseph Rezash's new home and its appeal to a growing flock of vultures. "My wife and I moved out here to be closer to nature. But we never expected to have vultures attack our roof and cause $6,000 worth of damage," says Mr. Rezash.

The Rezashes aren't the only ones surprised that vultures would make a pastime out of destroying the tiles on his roof with their razor-sharp beaks. His insurance company also finds it difficult to deal with.

"I was told that this kind of thing isn't generally covered by homeowners' insurance. So we had to take precautions." Pointing to the roof which sprouts rows of small metallic spikes, he explains, "Those things are supposed to make it uncomfortable. So far it seems to be working."

What may or may not be working are attempts at keeping the vultures off the man-made beach which they seem to enjoy using in the way a cat uses a litter box.

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