Bearing down on the hunt Tracking: A band of Garrett County farmers hunts bears that are destroying crops. They don't use guns, but try to chase the animals from their land.

September 25, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

GRANTSVILLE -- The woods near here are dark and deep, especially at 3: 30 in the morning. Then flashlights stab the night, like air-raid beacons. Their beams reveal a pack of hounds howling skyward, pawing the bark of a towering red oak.

High in the tree, a dark patch barely visible in the green tangle of leaves seems to shift and glisten. It's a black bear, or so it's said.

"You think he's scared, or not?" Calvin Schrock hollers over the din.

This is bear hunting, Maryland-style. Schrock, an Amish dairy farmer by day, roams the forests and farm fields of Garrett County at night with family and friends, tracking bears that have ruined crops or killed livestock.

The treed bear, if that's what it really is, led a trio of hounds on a three-hour chase. They dashed pell-mell for miles, across two creeks and a ridge, then came back, until the exhausted creature sought refuge in the oak. The tree is barely 100 yards from the cornfield where the pursuit started.

With bears protected from hunting in Maryland, Schrock and his friends and relative carry no guns. They aim only to frighten the wild animals from civilization. They do it with the blessing and cooperation of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. State officials hope this form of aversion therapy will ease public pressure to declare open season on the state's largest mammals.

Once nearly wiped out by hunting, bears have rebounded in western Maryland from only about a dozen in the mid-1950s to more than 300 today. Most stick to the forest, feeding on fruits, nuts, plants and insect larvae. But some have become pests -- raiding cornfields, rummaging through trash cans and killing pets or farm animals.

"The way it is now, the bear don't have any fear of you at all," says Delvin Mast, a dairy farmer near Grantsville. He estimates he lost more than $3,000 worth of corn last year, losses that were only partially reimbursed by the state.

That's where Schrock comes in. DNR calls him whenever it gets a complaint about a bear problem, and he rounds up a crew of men, boys and dogs to go after the wayward animal -- and scare it away.

"We just do it for the fun of it," Schrock explains earlier in the evening, adding, "I don't know if it's fun or not after you go every night for a couple weeks."

Schrock, 42, says he learned to hunt bears as a youth from his father, Ern, who sells farm equipment in Oakland. Ern dozes in the back of a pickup as the hunt wears on. Joel, Calvin's 14-year-old son, rides along, helping keep track of the dogs.

Joining in the hunt are Jason and Ryan Martin, ages 19 and 21. They say their mother doesn't mind them staying out all night chasing bears "as long as we're home in the morning to help with milking."

Trained dogs

Most of the real hunting is done by the dogs: Walker and Plott hounds trained to pursue bears and big cats. Schrock says he has used them to hunt wildcats, bobcats and bears in Colorado, West Virginia and Maine.

The dogs wear collars with tiny radio transmitters, so they can be tracked as they race after their quarry. The men fan out on foot and in the trucks, listening for the hounds, checking tracking antenna and communicating by two-way radios.

The men and boys on the hunt this night are Amish or Mennonites, two religious groups that stress family and community and separation from the world. Unlike the horse-and-buggy Amish visible in Lancaster County, Pa., Schrock belongs to a church that does not shun all technology.

"We'd be what you call 'new order' Amish," Schrock explains. "We farm with tractors and have electricity."

They share religious beliefs, many customs and the Pennsylvania Dutch, or German, language with the Old Order.

This year, there have been fewer bear complaints to check out than last year. Schrock believes the animals are finding more acorns to eat, a safer source of food than foraging around farms and homes. But a bear is the suspect in last week's killing of an 80-pound calf on a farm near Cumberland.

The chase and escape

On this dark night, Mast, the dairy farmer, leads Schrock's band of men and dogs on a fruitless two-hour search of his 600-acre spread after finding a flattened patch of corn. Not wanting to quit, the group drives to a nearby farm, owned by the "Panther Man," a farmer who claims he sees wildcats around his home.

Wildcats aside, he isn't imagining bears. And soon a chase is on.

The dogs are relentless, and fearless. As Schrock stands listening by the moonlit cornfield, their baying fades in the distance. They will not give up until their quarry climbs or turns to fight. A few hounds have been badly mauled, and Schrock recounts how one was killed and hauled into a cave. None of the men has been hurt, he says, thanks mainly to the dogs.

After awhile, the baying can be heard again, faintly at first and then louder. Two of the men report a bear, weighing maybe 150 pounds, puffing across the road toward Panther Man's farm, with the dogs barely 50 yards behind.

Schrock and the rest of the band hustle into the woods to where the animal apparently has climbed the oak. With the dogs barking hoarsely, the men decide it is time to give the bear a final scare. They pick up fallen branches from the ground and begin to thump on the tree trunk.

"He's coming down!" one yells, as leaves and bits of bark shower down. The men, who had leashed the dogs in anticipation, begin pulling their pack away.

Suddenly a pair of black paws are reaching around either side of the tree trunk, only about 8 feet from the ground. In a flash, the bear leaps, bowling over Sun photographer Linda Coan before fleeing into the darkness. She is bruised and shaken, but otherwise unhurt.

"You wanted to see 'em close!" Schrock says, with a laugh.

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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