The Black Bear Makes a Comeback - But the Applause Isn't Unanimous

October 02, 1994|By GLENN P. TOLBERT

One of Maryland's latest environmental debates comes from neighborhoods where an increasing number of residents are looking out of their windows and seeing black bears staring back at them.

While the return of the black bear is seen by some as a positive symbol of improving environmental quality, others are concerns about the growing bear population in Garrett and Allegany counties.

"I get many complaints from my constituents that they live in fear because of bears roaming around their yard," says Garrett County Commissioner Brenda Beutscher. "Something has to be

done about this. People have a right not to live in fear. I know animals should have rights, but so should property owners.

"We need a hunting season on bears to keep their numbers down. These are big, scary animals."

"Not so," counters Don Sincell, the editor of the Republican, a weekly newspaper in Oakland.

"I like living in an area that's pristine enough to support a big animal like a bear. There aren't enough of them yet for a hunting season. And besides, there are some of God's most magnificent creatures. Why should they be killed?"

Western Marylanders are often involuntary participants in a noble experiment examining how human population can coexist with the comeback of a once-feared animal. Residents of Garrett and Allegany counties are balancing the idea that the return of the bear is good with occasional (and sometimes unsettling) encounters with the large animal.

The outcome may influence the future handling of wildlife issues throughout the state.

Once nearly extinct

Black bears were nearly wiped out in Maryland despite the fact that they once roamed throughout the entire state. Early settlers considered the bear a dangerous nuisance that only added fear and misery to their already tough existence. As a result, the state passed legislation in the mid-1700s establishing a bounty for black bears in Somerset and Worcester counties on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

These and other measures were more than successful.

By 1956, there were only an estimated 12 bears left in the entire state, despite a ban on bear hunting which went into effect in 1949. They are now returning to Maryland because of wildlife management programs by the neighboring states of West Virginia and Pennsylvania that brought the big animals back.

To deal with increasing numbers of bears crossing state lines and becoming Maryland residents, the Department of Natural Resources had developed a Black Bear Management Plan, designed in part to "manage the black bear as a native wildlife species in Western Maryland."

"The increasing presence of bear is the ultimate good-news symbol concerning the state's environment,` says Gary Yoder, Western Maryland Liaison for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "Bears are big animals that need a lot of pristine countryside to stay alive. The fact that they like it here is a compliment to our efforts at maintaining environmental quality.

"Research shows that bears are having an excellent reproductive rate here, often better than they do in western states. That's because of the quality of habitat in Garrett County. The bear has a right to be here. It's part of our natural heritage," says Mr. Yoder.

Lee Shillingburg, a local farmer, doesn't see black bears as part of his heritage. He sees them as murderers.

Pointing to gruesome color photographs of his sheep ripped apart, he says: "I hear that the state politicians in Annapolis like the idea that we have bears up here. If they like them so much, why don't they put them in cages and ship them down to Annapolis where lawmakers could gawk at them every day? I can't afford these kind of losses to my sheep. My animals are being murdered because of some fanciful idea that it's nice to have bears roaming Maryland woods. We need a hunting season now."

Mr. Shillingburg isn't the only farmer who says the damage caused by the state's increasing bear population must be addressed. Roland Murphy takes visitors to his mountain cornfield, which he says is used as a delicatessen by the foraging animals.

"They basically pick out a spot in the middle of the field and start pulling cobs off the stalks, destroying large numbers of plants. The Department of Natural Resources won't let us kill them. And there's no compensation for the damage. We use hunting dogs to chase the bears out but they just find their way back," he says.

Need for compensation

DNR officials agree with both farmers that there should be compensation for crop and livestock damage caused by Maryland's black bears.

While compensation to landowners caused by the state's resident deer population has long been in place, the legal system has not caught up with bear issues.

And despite the lack of compensation for bear damage, officials say that it's too soon to begin a bear hunting season.

"We estimate there are between 175 to 200 resident black bears in Maryland," says Tom Matthews, DNR's Western Regional Wildlife manager.

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