Bearing with visitors at a Garrett cottage

Discovery: A man finds a family of black bears near his cabin, illustrating the state's task in dealing with a growing bear population.

March 22, 2003|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

MCHENRY - Bill Dean learned yesterday that five squatters have been wintering at his cottage overlooking Deep Creek Lake.

Unlike some residents of this booming mountain resort community, Dean was not upset by the notion of a female black bear and her four cubs taking up residence in a brush pile behind his shed, not 20 yards from the swing set where his grandchildren play.

"It doesn't bother me a bit," the 62-year-old said as a team of biologists and veterinarians with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources trooped into his yard to check on the uninvited guests. He pronounced the scene "pretty cool."

Bear No. 391 wasn't as cool about having visitors, though. She tried to escape, even after being shot with a tranquilizer dart, bolting out of the brush pile and loping downhill toward the lake. A second dart finally put her to sleep.

Then Harry Spiker and his team set to work. DNR's black-bear team leader and others lugged the doped, 228-pound bear back up the slope in a stretcher. There, they weighed and measured her, took blood samples and fitted her with a new radio-transmitter collar. They also pulled the squalling, 2-month-old cubs from the brush pile, weighed them and clipped numbered tags on their ears.

State biologists check on a sample of hibernating bears every year, just before warming weather prompts the animals to begin roaming the woods again. Few are found as close to people as this one was, and she illustrates the growing challenge of managing Maryland's burgeoning bear population.

Once nearly eradicated here, bears have been protected from hunting since 1953. There are now about 400 in Maryland, state officials say, with three-fourths of them roaming heavily forested Garrett and Allegany counties. Their expanding numbers have brought bears into increasingly frequent contact with people, particularly in the Deep Creek Lake area, where summer homes are popping up in once-remote wooded areas.

"Bears are certainly no strangers to this community," says Spiker, who oversees DNR's bear management efforts.

Although no humans have been hurt in encounters with bears in Maryland, some have lost pets and livestock, and a few bears have entered homes and outbuildings, looking for food. State officials say the number of complaints they field about bears raiding trash cans, bird feeders and the like grew steadily before dipping from just over 400 in 2001 to about 360 last year.

Wildlife officials have been trying to prevent human-animal conflicts by subjecting nuisance bears to something called "aversion therapy." Bear No. 391, now about 6 years old, was one of those. A couple of years ago, she was suspected of breaking into a Garrett home and devouring 50 pounds of baker's chocolate.

Biologists trapped her in a culvert, drugged her and fitted her with a radio collar. When she was ready to leave, they shot pepper spray in her face, set off loud firecrackers and blasted her departing behind with rubber buckshot. She has not caused any problems since, Spiker says.

With temperatures climbing into the 60s and the ice melting from the lake, Bear No. 391 and her cubs likely will hang around the Deans' cottage for only a few more weeks before wandering off, Spiker predicts. Female bears typically range over 13 to 15 square miles.

This wasn't the first bear Dean has seen since buying the lakefront cottage five years ago. The financial planner from Fairfax Station, Va., said another bear with three cubs wandered into his wooded yard last spring, and one of the cubs even scrambled up the oak beside his deck.

"It was really something; they were beautiful," he said. "Their fur was so thick and black."

At DNR's invitation, he brought his daughter, Jaimi, and granddaughter, Kender, to join the DNR team as they examined the bears. The scientists handed the cubs to the family to cuddle while they worked on the slumbering adult. When they finished, they replaced the sow in her den with her cubs, smearing all with Vick's VapoRub to obscure the human scent that might cause her to kill her offspring when she woke up.

Jaimi Dean, 36, says she opposes any resumption of bear hunting unless they become overpopulated. "They were here first," she said. "We should make do to stay out of their way."

Many neighbors in Western Maryland might disagree. Hunters, farmers who have lost livestock and crops, and some homeowners frightened by bears' proximity have clamored for renewed hunting. Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening rejected their pleas, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is more sympathetic.

A 12-member Maryland bear task force is expected to recommend a limited hunting season soon. Its chairman, Tom Mathews, said the season would be part of an overall strategy to minimize conflict between bears and people, not for recreation.

Neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia have bear hunting seasons.

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