The burgeoning black bear population in Western Maryland is creating so many problems for rural residents and farmers in the region that state officials are considering opening a limited hunting season on bears.
The proposal is supported by hunting groups, farmers, beekeepers and homeowners in Western Maryland, but environmentalists say there are better ways to address problems with nuisance bears than killing them.
Although West Virginia and Pennsylvania have bear seasons, it has been illegal to hunt bears in Maryland since 1953, according to state wildlife officials. Garrett and Allegany -- the Maryland counties with the biggest bear problems -- border those two states.
The first step toward opening Maryland to bear hunting came yesterday at a meeting of the Maryland Wildlife Advisory Commission, an advisory group to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Larry Albright, president of the Maryland Sportsmen's Association, told commissioners that bears are a growing nuisance in Western Maryland, noting DNR estimates that the bear population has doubled -- from 200 to 400 -- since 1995.
Albright proposed a two-day, limited bear season in Garrett and Allegany counties, with the hunters to be chosen by lottery. He presented letters from the Maryland Farm Bureau, beekeepers and others supporting the proposal.
"We believe that Maryland has become a breeding ground for neighboring states, and while our residents are being asked to tolerate the problems that come with a healthy black bear population, they are being denied the recreational activity afforded our neighbors," Albright said.
Bonnie Kelly, who represents Western Maryland on the wildlife commission, said there is a lot of support within the region for a bear season because of the damages wrought by marauding bears.
"I've received many calls from people saying they have to chase bears out of their yards and gardens," Kelly said. "They are losing their fear of humans."
But another commissioner, E. Joseph Lamp, vice president of the Anne Arundel County chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, argued against opening a bear season in a letter he distributed to the wildlife panel.
Lamp argued that bear hunting would have little, if any, effect on conflicts between humans and bears. He said the long-term problem is residential sprawl that encroaches on bear habitats.
He said other measures -- such as putting electric fences around beehives -- can keep bears from causing damage.
In interviews before yesterday's commission meeting, officials with several environmental groups said they would oppose any attempt to open Maryland to bear hunting.
"We're happy to see the bears back," said Mildred F. Kriemelmeyer, president of the Maryland Conservation Council. "I would say leave the little 400 [bears] alone."
Joseph D. Swope of the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter said his group is not convinced that the bear population has grown so large that a hunting season is needed to reduce their numbers.
"At this point, unless we see some credible scientific evidence that the bear population has significantly increased, we are opposed to a black bear hunt," Swope said.
But Garrett County farmers like Hubert H. Myers, 71, say that those opposing bear hunts don't realize the aggravation the animals cause for small farmers trying to eke out a living.
He said bears tear into the plastic he uses to wrap 800-pound bales of hay, exposing it to weather and causing it to spoil.
Maryland has a bear stamp program in which residents can pay $5 for a stamp that helps fund a program to cover some farm losses, but it has only generated enough to pay 42 cents on the dollar, according to state wildlife officials.
The Wildlife Advisory Commission plans to meet again next month to hear a report from DNR officials on the black bear problem. The commission will then decide whether to move forward with hearings on a bear-hunting season.
Michael E. Slattery, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division, said it is unlikely that a season could be established this fall, as Albright wants.
Several Eastern states besides Maryland have bears but no bear-hunting season. They include Connecticut, Florida and Mississippi. Most other Eastern states have a bear-hunting season, according to state wildlife officials.