An open season on black bears isn't likely yet Black bear numbers

On the Outdoors

January 28, 1996|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,Department of Natural ResourcesSUN STAFF

During early October a couple of years ago, while scouting an upper section of Savage River State Forest for the coming deer season, I watched a black bear trundle out of a neighboring cornfield, rest on its haunches for a moment while it vigorously sniffed the breeze, and then amble into the far tree line.

It was the only black bear I have seen in the wild in Maryland, and even at more than 100 yards, for a flatlander it was exciting to watch because the black bear is a secretive and mostly nonconfrontational animal.

For a few years, there has been talk of a hunting season for black bears in Maryland, where the population is approximately 200 animals, mostly in Garrett and western Allegany counties.

Last week, John R. Griffin, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, sent a letter to the 19 members of a citizens' task force the department appointed to discuss the future of the black bear in the state.

News accounts reported that DNR already has decided to continue its closed hunting season for bears through next fall, at least. However, according to several sources at DNR, a decision will not be made until this week.

DNR officials were to meet with the task force in Garrett County yesterday, sit down this week to evaluate the group's recommendations and make a decision. Also to be taken into account are the responses from the public at four meetings held across the state last year.

Griffin's letter said, however, that DNR is leaning toward postponement. And that probably is the right choice at this time for animal rights activists, landowners and hunters, because it is a delaying tactic that will give wildlife managers more time to assess the status of the black bear.

Tom Mathews, game program supervisor for DNR, said late last week that the habitat for bears in the western part of the state is very good, that the bear population is healthy and that reproductive rates are excellent.

"But the key point in all this is that this is not a small, isolated population of a few hundred bears in western Allegany and Garrett counties," Mathews said. "These bears are a part of the tri-state Appalachian Highlands population, if you will."

Because these bears are likely to range in Pennsylvania, West Virginia or Maryland, Mathews said, determining how many bears are in which area is difficult. The absence of information on age, sex and location, data that are obtained for many other species from hunter check-ins during legal seasons, further confounds the situation.

"When you are doing a waterfowl survey from a plane, for example, you can get a pretty good count," said Mathews. "But with other species, it is not as easy as looking into a fish bowl, if you will, to get a count."

In 1991, Mathews said, DNR completed a trap and relocation program for bears and, on the basis of that survey, determined there were 150 to 200 bears in Maryland.

In the years since, reports of crop damage have increased, as has the number of bears killed by automobiles, factors that Mathews said indicate that the number of bears continues to increase.

"Relatively speaking, that is a good population of bears, when you look at the range they occupy," said Mathews. "I would say that it is equal to or better than the density in Pennsylvania or West Virginia."

A female bear, Mathews said, has an estimated range of 10 to 15 square miles. Male bears have ranges of 40 to 60 square miles, which easily can have them moving in and out of state, depending on quality of habitat or movements during the mating season.

"These bears are coming and going," said Mathews. "That's expected when you look at the biology and mountain travel routes."

Bears that have been tagged in Maryland have been killed by hunters in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Mathews said, and bears from Pennsylvania have been verified in Maryland.

But it is the density of population rather than the number of bears that is at issue among some bee keepers and farmers in Western Maryland, where crop and property damage continues to increase.

When the density becomes too great, it surpasses what DNR calls cultural carrying capacity, or the ability of humans to put up with bears destroying crops, livestock or property.

It is possible for the carrying capacity of the habitat to be greater than the cultural carrying capacity, and at that point hunting becomes a possible management technique.

If DNR delays a hunting season for bear, Griffin wrote, it would "provide additional time to increase the awareness of . . . the viability of the bear population and the role hunting plays in managing the population."

For the time being, however, DNR likely will continue to trap and relocate nuisance bears, farmers and landowners will be compensated for bear damage from a DNR fund, and biologists, activists and hunters will have more time to learn about %o Maryland's growing black bear population.

Black bear numbers

The black bear population in Maryland is estimated to be approximately 200, based on a Department of Natural Resources study completed in 1991. DNR game program supervisor Tom Mathews said it is probable the population has increased, based on increased mortality in the state.

Year ...Illegal ...Road Kill ...Other ...Unknown ...Total

1985 ... ..0 .. .. .. .0 ... .. ..0 .. .. ..0 .. .. ...0

1986 .. ...2 .. .. .. .2 .. .. ...0 .. .. ..0 .. .. ...4

1987 .. ...3 .. .. .. .2 .. .. ...0 .. .. ..0 .. .. ...5

1988 .. ...0 .. .. .. .2 .. .. ...1 .. .. ..1 .. .. ...4

1989 .. ...3 .. .. .. .1 .. .. ...2 .. .. ..0 .. .. ...6

1990 .. ...1 .. .. .. .4 .. .. ...0 .. .. ..0 .. .. ...5

1991 .. ...1 .. .. .. .8 .. .. ...1 .. .. ..0 .. .. ..10

1992 .. ...3 .. .. .. .5 .. .. ...1 .. .. ..0 .. .. ...9

1993 .. ...1 .. .. .. .5 .. .. ...1 .. .. ..2 .. .. ...9

1994 .. ...2 .. .. ...10 .. .. ...0 .. .. ..0 .. .. ..12

Totals ...16 .. .. ...39 .. .. ...6 .. .. ..3 .. .. ..64

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