Why lost bear might linger

Wanderer: Have a little sympathy for a black cub who's strayed too close to civilization.

July 16, 1999|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

It has been more than a week since Owings Mills has caught a glimpse of the Black Bear. When last seen July 6, he was feasting on wild berries in a back yard in McDonogh Township.

Bears in Maryland are more and more accustomed to people. From their range in Western Maryland, black bears regularly visit campers. But besides Owings Mills, the only other place to report a bear on its downtown streets so far this summer was the mountain town of Frostburg. Why would a black bear wander so far?

If the Black Bear of Owings Mills is a yearling, sent away by his mother to stake out his own territory, as state authorities suspect, he has wandered more than the usual 150-mile radius. Perhaps he is lost! Or is he?

One person who knows about lost bears is David McPhail, the New Hampshire illustrator and author of children's books. In his book, "LOST!," a bear wanders from the woods into Manhattan.

In reality, McPhail says, it is a frightening thing for bears to be lost. They are basically pretty shy; in all the years he lived in the New Hampshire woods, he has seen only one. Yet there were dozens, maybe hundreds of them, nearby.

Like McPhail's bear, the Black Bear of Owings Mills not only made it to a good-sized city in one of the most densely populated parts of the state, far from any kin, but he stuck around!

"What makes this [bear so] high profile is that it elected to stay in the area for an extended period of time and kept making cameo appearances," says Ken D'Loughy, regional manager of the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Division of the Department of Natural Resources.

About the third week of June, the Black Bear -- or should we call him the Lost Bear? -- made his camp the 300 acres of woods between Interstate 795 and busy Reisterstown Road, the commercial heart of Owings Mills. From his green home base, the bear followed a network of woodlands into densely populated clusters of townhouses, arranged near woods for the aesthetic comfort of the residents and, it turns out, the ease of bears.

He needed only step out of the woods briefly to raid Dumpsters neatly placed every 20 feet or so at the end of each cul-de-sac. He was also spotted several times pawing through the Dumpsters at BJ's Wholesale Club, the discount food and general supply store whose parking lot abuts a dense woods along I-795.

That was after he visited one of the area's largest and busiest movie complexes -- Valley Center on Reisterstown Road. He was behind the movies -- listening? -- when seen July 1 by Baltimore County police officers in the Garrison precinct across the road.

One hypothesis is that the Black Bear of Owings Mills came south from Pennsylvania. This developed because a black bear was reported outside Bel Air June 15, in Perry Hall a day later, and at McDonogh School the night of June 28.

But with sightings so random, this bear is tough to pin down. Some think he may have come south through Emmitsburg and Westminster.

There's no map with stickpins marking the Black Bear's journey in DNR offices.

No photograph of him, either -- authorities don't bring cameras since they are interested only in making sure the bear and the public are safe.

Some witnesses -- including an employee of BJ's -- describe him as about 80 pounds and 4 feet high on all fours.

Others, including the shift commander at the Garrison precinct, say the bear is 6 feet high and 300 pounds. In this group is a Randallstown woman who says she went eye-to-eye with him in her back yard.

But one thing is sure: The Black Bear of Owings Mills is not the same black bear who spent two hours stuck in an oak tree on U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett's farm in Frederick Monday morning before climbing down and running into the woods toward the Monocacy River. Frederick has had its own series of bear sightings, authorities say.

Actually, some state experts think the Black Bear of Owings Mills may already be headed north toward the Liberty Reservoir along his own river or stream.

Another possibility, offered by the state's bear biologist, Steve Bittner, is that the Black Bear may have retreated into the woods along I-795, perhaps with a sigh of relief that he doesn't have to rummage in Dumpsters for a while. It is blackberry time.

Usually, as happened in Frederick, lost bears find their own way home -- they move along because they run out of food or can't find a mate.

Or, the bear is befriended by a little boy who takes him on the bus around Manhattan and finally into the woods, as in McPhail's book.

Being lost is part of life, the author says.

"It's not the bear's fault," he adds. "It does not know where it should go, or should not go. Probably it would be better if someone helped it."

State officials say they will get involved only if the bear is hurt -- and they dismissed a report July 6 that the bear was limping after the state official who arrived at the scene saw the bear run away.

And now that the Black Bear of Owings Mills has come here, will he settle down?

Only more regular cameos will tell, says D'Loughy of the wildlife division. He predicts the bear will wander in search of a mate "and we certainly don't have a female in the area."

But it will be another year or two before the bear thinks about a mate. By then well, anything is possible.

The Black Bear of Owings Mills reminds McPhail of another story about bears he has just finished reading. This book is for adults. In "The Bear Comes Home," by Rafi Zabor (W.W. Norton), McPhail recounts, "the bear plays saxophone in a jazz band. He falls in love, not with another bear, either "

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