Killing bears may not be the answer State should instead help Western Md. learn to co-exist with them

January 11, 1998|By GLENN TOLBERT

THE BLACK BEARS of Western Maryland are sleeping now. Tucked into shallow caves and under shelters formed by fallen trees, the state's largest animals are hibernating, resting up for a new year that's sure to include more close encounters with humans.

Last year, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) personnel were overwhelmed by complaints about the bears. Bears turned up in garages and backyards, they climbed atop cars, they snooped in basements and tore up farmers' fields in search of food.

The increasing contact between people and bears has prompted some residents and legislators to demand that something be done.

Programs already in place were deemed by many to be inadequate. An education program to teach people how to co-exist with black bears produced a color brochure that wasn't widely distributed. A black bear stamp and decal that sold for $5 failed to generate the $20,000 annually the state had hoped to use to compensate farmers for bear-related crop damage. A task force's recommendations for a lottery-based limited bear hunt lost state support when animal rights activists - primarily from the state's metropolitan areas - protested.

Meanwhile, the bear population Garrett and Allegany counties rose to about 300, an estimate that doesn't include the bears who amble across state lines from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Reflecting what many local people see as a lack of concern for Western Maryland residents by Annapolis-based bureaucrats, Garrett County Del. George C. Edwards has said, "If the state doesn't deal with the problem, we'll ask DNR to establish populations of black bear in every county in Maryland."

Edwards has joined ranks with state Sen. John J. Hafer of Allegany County to draft a bill allowing a limited bear hunt and to use the money raised from hunting licenses to compensate beekeepers and farmers for livestock and crops for damaged caused by the animals.

"We're finished joking about the bear problem. We're going to do something about it," says Edwards.

The bear problem is real, but the regulated killing of a creature that has, up to now, not harmed a single state resident may be unnecessary.

As a resident of Garrett County, this writer knows the sense of caution and even the twinge of fear felt when hiking through some of the county's most remote regions, where bears are known to dwell. Yet with that twinge of trepidation at sighting a bear sharing a woodland path or even the front yard comes a renewed sense of appreciation for Maryland's few remaining wild areas.

Rather than legislated killing of a creature that was once nearly wiped out by hunting and logging, modern alternatives are in place to help Western Maryland residents learn to co-exist with the black bear. These include renewed efforts at making existing programs work. While sales of the black bear stamp fell short of the goal, a more aggressive marketing campaign could boost sales and generate the money needed to compensate farmers for losses caused by the bears. And the state's educational programs, which include such basics as not keeping food or garbage in open areas where bears roam, could be more aggressively presented to residents of Garrett and Allegany counties.

This does not dismiss the fears and concerns people have about encountering bears. Even a relatively small bear that weighs about 200 to 250 pounds can become a snarling black swirl and snap a dog's back with the single swipe of a powerful paw. And other than the raccoon and wolf, perhaps no game animal is more intelligent than the black bear, which learns from experience and has been known to elude human pursuers by circling, doubling and crossing water as cleverly as a fox.

Conflict is inevitable wherever black bears live close to people. Some lose their fear, and all are unpredictable. Sows with cubs are always dangerous. Bears also become irritable as they grow old or if they're injured. But the horror stories about black bears are much like the fables about man-eating wolves. The black bear does not generally possess the sometimes aggressive demeanor of its western relative - the much larger and fiercer grizzly.

And many residents say they live in Western Maryland because they enjoy an environment pristine enough to support increasing numbers of black bears. As far as physical dangers go, there are no guarantees about personal safety in any environment. Many Western Marylanders feel much safer living with bears than do some urban dwellers who live with street crime.

Perhaps the DNR could spend less time producing press releases promoting itself and more time training its personnel to educate people who live in black bear country. Increased education of residents and better marketing of the black bear stamp make more sense to me than having more bullets flying around the woods during a bear hunting season. The state should assist Western Marylanders rather than allowing the bears to be shot.

Glenn Tolbert is a free-lance writer who lives in McHenry, Md.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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