Maryland's bear population showing new, bristling health

On The Outdoors

December 16, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Black bears occasionally make the news when they mix it up with domestic animals or wander onto an interstate exchange at the edge of suburbia.

But the better story is told less often -- the secretive forest dweller that had been virtually eliminated at the turn of the last century is making a comeback.

"There are about 400 resident bears in the state now," said Steve Bittner, forest game program manager for the Department of Natural Resources. "The population has been increasing steadily over the last 15 years -- and some people will tell you it's increasing too rapidly."

But, Bittner said, for the most part the state's resident bears seem to be finding a balanced existence among the wooded ridges and hollows from Frederick County west.

Mike Slattery, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division, said residents who live with the largest bear populations in the state seem to be accepting the presence of bears rather than lobbying for their removal through a limited hunting season.

"The issue of hunting does come up from time to time," Slattery said. "But even in Garrett County, where there has been the most strife over the years, public opinion is divided on the issue. There is no strong public consensus, so we are not contemplating a season at this time."

Slattery said hunting will continue to be an option if population control becomes necessary in the future.

Bear sightings in Garrett County have become so commonplace that reported sightings no longer are logged in Maryland's westernmost county. Across the state last year, 82 sightings were reported, including 52 in Allegany, 10 in Washington, 12 in Frederick, 3 in Montgomery and one that visited Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties.

The key to the resurgence of the black bear is the improvement in habitat over the past 50 years and the absence of a hunting season in Maryland.

In the past 20 years, Bittner said, forested lands in Washington and Frederick counties have continued to mature, and bear habitat and food sources have improved, as well.

"Our existing forest lands are producing lots of food, and our bears are putting out a lot of little ones," said Bittner, adding that Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia also have thriving bear populations. "Three cubs every two years is normal for the Mid-Atlantic."

Maryland bears also are bearing their young earlier than bears in Western states and Canada, for example.

"A few of ours are breeding as young as 1 1/2 and a lot at 2 1/2," said Bittner, "while out west many only start breeding at 4 or 4 1/2. It all ties into the food source, which has been excellent."

The food sources -- mostly acorns, nuts and berries -- have been so good for two years that nuisance and crop-damage complaints are at low levels, even though there are more bears about.

In 1998, the last year for which complete statistics are available, DNR received 210 nuisance complaints, down from 342 in 1997. In 1998, most complaints were of bears rummaging in trash, knocking down bird feeders or being too close to residences.

In 1997, DNR paid $15,750 in claims for agricultural damage. In 1998, DNR paid $6,615 in claims.

The difference, Bittner said, is acorns, which were largely absent in 1997 and plentiful in 1998.

Bittner's program catalogs bear sightings, monitors mortality and reproduction and has trapped and tagged bears to learn more about their range and lifestyle.

Next year, Bittner hopes to be able to implement a bear population survey in which DNA analysis can be used to identify bears through a mark and recapture study.

But, he said, there is little doubt the black bear is back and in balance with its habitat.

"They are doing extremely well in Garrett, Allegany, Washington and western Frederick counties," Bittner said. "And we don't think they'll move much more east than western Frederick County. There's not enough habitat and there are too many people."

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