Ursine activity bears watching

Sightings: People who live in northwestern Baltimore County near Prettyboy Reservoir share their woods with a 6-foot black bear.

May 27, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Plundered beehives and ransacked bird feeders were the tell-tale signs. But for proof that a bear is roaming parts of northern Baltimore County, you can go to the tape.

See the bear peek over the rim of the above-ground swimming pool. Watch it drink from the pond and scrounge for food.

See it flop down on its haunches, sittin' and chillin' - right there behind Teresa Snodgrass' cabin in the woods.

"He looked like a circus bear, really well-mannered," said Snodgrass, who captured the animal on videotape one recent evening at her family's home near Prettyboy Reservoir.

"I've lived on this property my whole life, and I feel honored that a bear came here."

For the past couple of years, reports that a bear might be in northern Baltimore County have trickled in to state wildlife officials.

But with at least 15 confirmed reports of ursine activity this spring, the bear is the talk of the bedroom communities and farming hamlets that line the reservoir's rural watershed.

Craig Fischer saw one on the deck behind his house, working its way into a trash can full of birdseed. Jack and Dottie Arthur spotted one behind their house, emptying bird feeders and "just munching away." Donna Hershey watched one saunter up to her beehives for a taste of honey.

"I grew up in this neighborhood," Hershey said, "and we've never had a bear sighting until now."

A bear is blamed for tearing down part of Linda Ferrara's chicken coop in search of grain, for doing the same at Harry Isensee's place. It left a clearly visible paw print on the glass of a farmhouse's kitchen door.

And when the trash barrels behind Prettyboy Elementary School were overturned night after recent night, guess who emerged as the prime suspect?

"I can't say for sure that it was the bear, but usually vandals get tired of doing the same thing and move on," said Prettyboy Principal John Desmone.

For four nights last month, the bear came to the Snodgrass family's secluded lot to feast on food set aside for the goat and the sheep.

Finally, the family locked the feed in a metal, bear-proof box - and, one evening, trained a camera lens on their visitor.

"We're stuck in our house. It's 10 o'clock on a Saturday night," says JimiSnodgrass, narrating the 20-minute tape. As they watch the bear roam their yard, his 11-year-old daughter, Jodie, is heard saying, "He's so cute!"

The bear on the Snodgrass tape, one of at least two videos shot by area homeowners, appears to be an adult, about 6 feet tall, weighing 250 to 300 pounds, said Ken D'Loughy, regional manger of the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Division of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Black bears are plentiful in Western Maryland, but bears that venture into the central part of the state are often 2-year-old males leaving their mothers in search of their own territory.

That's what happened last year, when a bear temporarily settled into Owings Mills, wandering into neighborhoods such as McDonogh Township. Another was spotted last year in the Germantown area of Montgomery County, D'Loughy said.

The mature bear in northern Baltimore County might have followed the natural water drainage system leading from Pennsylvania to the headwaters of the Gunpowder River at the reservoir, the wildlife official said.

He added that the area, with its dense woods and ample outcroppings of rocks lining the water, is an ideal bear habitat. And the nearby homes and farms - with their food scraps, bird feeders and untended feed bags - provide easy pickings for opportunistic feeders such as bears.

D'Loughy said he has seen no firm evidence that there is more than one bear near the reservoir, but some residents say they've seen prints in a range of sizes - suggesting to them that a mother and cub might be in the area.

Longtime residents said the Prettyboy area is home to an astonishing array of wildlife, including, perhaps, bobcats and timber rattlesnakes. But they've seen no signs of bear in the area for decades. That changed a couple of years ago.

Carl Party, who lives on Spook Hill Road near the reservoir, said he was hiking with his 6-year-old granddaughter one day last October when he caught a glimpse of what might have been the bear.

"I didn't want to go around telling anybody I saw a bear, because the stories weren't around then," he said.

Roland C. Steiner's family has kept bees at a Rockdale Road property for decades. He said they had no problems with bears until November, when he walked behind his barn to find the beehive torn apart.

About 40,000 bees - and 30 pounds of honey - were gone.

About two weeks ago, a bear came to the home of Mike and Donna Hershey north of the reservoir three straight nights, toppling the wooden hives and twisting apart the frames that hold the honeycombs.

Now that the bear has become something of a celebrity, some are concerned for its well-being, and for the safety of anyone who might approach the animal.

Some claim that residents, hoping to see the bear, have illegally set out food as bait. Others are concerned that a poacher might track down the bear, or that a homeowner might panic upon seeing one.

It is illegal to shoot a black bear in Maryland.

"If we just educate the people and leave the bear alone, we'll be all right," said Mike Hershey.

D'Loughy, the state wildlife official, said residents can avoid problems with bears by reducing the chances that they will be attracted to homes. Residents should stow livestock and pet food, keep trash and birdseed indoors and bring in bird feeders at night.

Experts say that if you encounter a bear, you should talk to yourself in a calm, assertive voice and back away slowly, avoiding eye contact, which the bear might perceive as threatening.

The bear will usually be startled and will flee.

There are no plans to trap or relocate the animal.

"We're just giving the bear some space," D'Loughy said, "letting it do what bears do."

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