In 1956, state wildlife officials estimated that only 12 black bears remained in Maryland. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the state listed the black bear as an endangered species within its borders.
In the years since, the number of black bears has increased to the point where wildlife biologists now estimate there are as many as 400 moving through the western counties of the state.
And where for more than 100 years black bears had been rare and secretive residents of the remote forests and wetlands of mountainous Garrett and Allegany counties, now they are present in numbers that are testing the patience of landowners and challenging the skills and technology of game managers.
"The information we had from the trapping and tagging program five years ago showed about 200 bears in the area," said Joshua Sandt, director of the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Division. "Judging by the sightings and the Black Bear Task Force counts last summer, we think there are now between 300 and 400.
"But it is not a static population. It is mobile and moves from Pennsylvania through Maryland to West Virginia and back again."
As the number of bears has increased, from that low point 40 years ago through endangered status to non-game species in 1980 and forest game species in 1985 (closed season), hunters, campers, hikers and landowners have come into more frequent contact with bears.
And while hunters, campers and hikers might be struck by the wonder of the meeting, for farmers, fruit growers and beekeepers, close encounters of the black bear kind can result in significant financial loss.
Recently, the General Assembly authorized the establishment of the Black Bear Conservation Stamp Program, intended to raise funds through the sale of a $5 decal. The funds would be used to compensate landowners for agricultural damage caused by bears -- and thereby increase tolerance for bears.
Although, according to the Maryland Game Program Annual Report, bear damage totaled $5,030 in reported losses last year, DNR estimates that bear damage to standing corn, oats, beehives and livestock normally exceeds $15,000 annually.
Even at $15,000 a year, it seems a small amount of loss when spread over bear habitat in the western counties.
But, said Sandt, a farmer whose corn crop is intended to feed livestock through the winter experiences a significant loss when that crop is destroyed by bears.
"That farmer then has to replace the feed for his stock," Sandt said. "He has to worry about finding feed, getting the quality he wants and the quantity he needs -- if it is available -- and he has to make up the difference if that feeds costs more than the price we give him for the damage."
The funds from the conservation stamp would allow payments between $200 and $3,000 per year for bona fide bear damage to crops. Enough, Sandt said, to offset an occasional small loss.
"It is one way to help, but it doesn't solve the total problem," Sandt said of the compensation program. "This is just another tool to alleviate the damage. We are going to have to do something to manage this [state] population, which really is part of a regional population of many thousands."
In the case of damage to crops by deer in the state, landowners can get permits from DNR to kill nuisance deer.
"With bears we are saying we'll chase them away or trap and relocate them," Sandt said, adding that landowners cannot shoot nuisance bears under any circumstances.
DNR has stepped up its efforts to trap and relocate nuisance bears and continues to provide electrified fences for beekeepers and to teach landowners and the public how to deal with bear intrusions into crops, back yards and public areas.
"But it may be that we need to go to that next step [hunting] in the future," Sandt said. "And when we do we could let either the landowners do it or let the public do it. We prefer to let the public."
Sandt said he expects a limited hunting season for bears eventually -- perhaps within two or three years, unless the conservation stamp program greatly increases the tolerance of landowners, who over the past few years have been pushing for tighter management of bear populations.
"If and when we do have a season," Sandt said, "it will be targeted to that portion of the state where it is most necessary and tightly controlled through a permit system to take only 10 or 20 bears -- if we had a limited season right now."
Pub Date: 10/27/96