Md. ban on bear hunting targeted

Fed-up lawmakers have sights on bill to circumvent DNR

January 21, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

McHENRY - Barbara Reed is just thankful she wasn't home when a black bear pried open a window and plunged into her kitchen in May.

The bear plopped down on Reed's kitchen sink - smashing porcelain figurines on the window sill and snapping her spigot - before ransacking the kitchen.

"Something needs to be done. They are burglars," said Reed, 49, a real estate agent who sells homes around Deep Creek Lake. "If the state can't control them, keep them out of people's homes, there needs to be a bear hunt."

Reed and many of her Garrett County neighbors are furious that the state Department of Natural Resources, which has the power to authorize a bear hunting season, has continued Maryland's 48-year ban on it.

Some influential state lawmakers are fed up as well. They have introduced legislation that would circumvent the department when it comes to hunting issues.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and other leading Democrats have co-sponsored a bill urging the department to start a black bear hunting season in Western Maryland.

Taylor is also supporting a measure to expand the deer hunting season to 21 days - including up to three Sundays - except in Central Maryland.

Another of Taylor's legislative priorities, not yet introduced, would take aim at the department by stripping it of its power to regulate hunting. Instead, an independent game commission would be created; details of the measure are still being worked out.

Taylor, whose district is in rural Allegany County, said all three proposals are needed because he fears the department is controlled by anti-hunting forces who have not listened to residents about black bears and other issues.

"What do you do if the department that is in charge of wildlife in this state is not willing to recognize the realities that exist?" Taylor said. "The fact of the matter is, hunting has been and continues to be a legal, 300-year tradition throughout America."

But Taylor acknowledges that the bear and deer management bills, strongly supported by sportsmen and the farmers lobby, will face strong opposition.

Animal-welfare activists, some religious organizations and outdoors groups such as those for hikers and horseback riders oppose Sunday hunting. They believe forests should be free of gunfire at least one day of the week.

The bear hunting bill is also opposed by animal-rights and environmental activists, who argue that Maryland's bear population - which the state estimates at 300 to 400 - is not large enough to be hunted.

Both sides are expected to square off at what is likely to be a contentious hearing on the bills Wednesday before the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Some animal-rights activists accuse Taylor - who was criticized by some constituents when he supported Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gun safety bill two years ago - of using the bears for political gain.

"I am concerned that the speaker is taking his attack on wildlife as a way to get back in good standing with the NRA," said Jeff Flighter of the Fund for Animals. "Frankly, the wildlife do not deserve that treatment, nor do the vast majority of Maryland residents who choose not to hunt."

Nearly extinct in 1953

Black bears were nearly extinct in Maryland when hunting them was banned in 1953. But through conservation efforts, they have managed to thrive in Garrett and Allegany counties.

Some bears have also moved into Washington and Frederick counties and perhaps into Montgomery, Carroll and Baltimore counties, said Steve Bittner, the state biologist in charge of bear management.

With the surge in the bear population came an increase in complaints from residents who say bears are destroying crops, eating livestock and coming too close to humans. There has also been an increase in the number of bears struck by vehicles. Last year, a record 31 bears were killed on Maryland highways. Two have been killed this month on Garrett County roads.

"I think the situation is very, very clear that we need a hunt," said Del. John Adams Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Environmental Matters Committee. "I think it is often the role of the legislature to push the bureaucracy to do things they are not willing to do."

Del. George C. Edwards, lead sponsor of the bear-management legislation, said the bill would require the department to study Western Maryland's bear population each year and set up a hunt if the number is determined to be too high. The hunters would be chosen through a lottery.

"I call it a nudger," said Edwards, a Republican from Garrett County. "This is telling the department: `We think you should do this, and this how you should do it.'"

The department has been studying Maryland's bear population for years but has shied away from implementing a bear hunting season. Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia all have black bear seasons.

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