Bear scare in Western Md.

Danger: Should we be more afraid of bears raiding trash cans or hunters with guns?

February 24, 2002|By Rick Bissell | Rick Bissell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE MOVE TO GIVE Maryland a bear hunting season appears to be dead for this session of the General Assembly. It should stay that way for the simple reason that the proposed solution to the state's "bear problem" is more dangerous than the problem itself.

That hasn't stopped the backers of a bear hunting season, including Western Maryland's Sportsmen's Association, state Sen. John J. Hafer, an Allegany County Republican, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, and the Cumberland Times-News. That newspaper began the charge last year with a lead editorial headlined "Black bears: State should manage population with hunt." The article went on to claim that the state's growing black bear population endangers humans.

The problem is that neither the newspaper nor the politicians have provided evidence that bears represent a danger to humans, while there is plenty of evidence that hunters are such a danger. Unless otherwise noted, all data cited here is public information from Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

Maryland had a large black bear population into the 19th century. At that time, there were so many bears the state encouraged hunting to reduce the population. Over time the deterioration of the bears' habitat and the unlimited hunting caused the bear population to dwindle. Bear hunting was banned in 1953. By 1956, there were only 12 bears in Maryland.

Over the past 25 years, the quality of the forests and wetlands in Western Maryland and surrounding states has steadily improved. This has resulted in a new growth in the bear population. In the early 1980s, the DNR estimated that 150 bears lived in Maryland. That rose as high as 350 in recent years, though research last year using DNA identification methods caused the agency to revise the number downward.

As the bear population has grown, people have had to decide how to manage contact between humans and bears. In 1992, the DNR developed the Black Bear Management Plan. The DNR monitors the bear population and considers ways of protecting both humans and bears. Staff work closely with local communities to educate them on bear behavior and teach ways of maintaining a bear's natural fear of humans.

From 1996 to 2000, the DNR wildlife staff received 1,623 nuisance complaints about bears. Each year the major complaint has been about bears getting into trash. Typically the complaints increase when there is a natural food shortage and decrease when natural food is plentiful.

Western Maryland farmers grow corn, oats, fruit, and keep beehives with honey, all of which bears love to eat. As the bear population has grown, farmers have had to contend with crop damage. In 1996, DNR started the Black Bear Conservation Program to reimburse farmers for damage. From 1996 to 1999, bears caused an average of $26,131.25 worth of damage per year. Since the program began, the DNR has been able to reimburse 43.7 percent of the total eligible damage. Funding for the reimbursement program is based on the voluntary purchase of bear stamps, mostly in the suburban areas of Maryland.

No deaths or injuries

Any time bears and humans live in proximity, human safety becomes a concern. A bear's way of communicating - grunting, snorting and standing on hind legs to see better - is often misinterpreted as aggressive behavior, prompting complaints. But since 1997, complaints regarding human safety have decreased 8 percent, at the same time that press coverage drumming up support for a bear hunt has increased. And while an encounter with a bear may be frightening, according to DNR statistics, no one in Maryland has been injured or killed by a bear in the past century.

Maryland bear management relies on two techniques: community education and aversive conditioning. DNR staffers educate community members on proper food and trash storage. They talk about how to best handle encounters with bears and conduct field investigations into bear problems an average of 58 times per year.

The DNR uses aversive conditioning if a bear problem continues. Bears are trapped and released. As they release it, DNR personnel shoot the bear with rubber bullets and buckshot and spray it with pepper spray. The goal is to retrain the bear to fear and avoid people. The DNR also uses trained dogs to chase bears from farms and crops. The DNR reports using these techniques on two to five bears each year. As a last resort, the DNR will destroy a dangerous bear.

Weighing the risks

Still, some are dissatisfied with these techniques and hanker for a hunting season. Undoubtedly, hunting would decrease the bear population, but at what cost? From 1990 to 1999, there were 289 hunting injuries in Maryland and 18 people died from hunting accidents. Those numbers would likely increase if Maryland added a bear hunting season.

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