DNR plans to allow black bear hunting

State intends to reduce population by 20 percent

last Md. hunt was in 1953

October 10, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland will end a half-century ban on black bear hunting next year, opening a limited season that would help trim the state's bear population by about 20 percent.

The plan would likely allow hunters to kill about 30 black bears in Western Maryland in October -- the first legal hunt since 1953.

"This is not a bear eradication program," said Paul A. Peditto, director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"Our goal is simply to reduce the bear population so that everyone can enjoy having them as an important part of the landscape."

The decision to permit a hunt -- part of a broader, 10-year black bear management plan to be released this month for public comment -- drew praise yesterday from sportsmen's groups and some Western Maryland residents who say they're being overrun by a burgeoning bear population.

"If you look at the crop damage, the homes broken into, those kinds of things, it's continually increased over the past five to 10 years," said Del. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican. "They've looked at the scientific data, and they have concluded that this is how they need to manage the population."

But wildlife advocacy groups said the decision would merely give a few hunters the opportunity to collect bear "trophies." They vowed to fight the DNR plan through litigation or legislation in the General Assembly next year.

"It's a recreational hunt, a trophy hunt, for a tiny number of people who want an additional trophy animal to shoot at for fun," said Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals and member of a recent Maryland black bear task force. "There is not a single iota of evidence that hunting bears would reduce bear conflicts with people."

The DNR decision comes after more than a decade of study and debate, and it marks a significant turnaround for an animal that was once all but wiped out in Maryland.

In 1956, the black bear population in Maryland had dropped to as few as a dozen, scientists said. But conservation efforts nursed the population back to health. Maryland's current black bear population is estimated at 300 to 400, with densely forested areas of Garrett and Allegany counties their ideal habitat.

The problem, according to hunt supporters and opponents, is that human development has encroached on the rebounding bear population.

Motorists in Western Maryland have been hitting bears with greater frequency -- 27 times last year -- while farmers and homeowners are reporting more destruction to crops and gardens. Bear-related agricultural damage claims increased from $10,000 in 1999 to $36,000 in 2001, Peditto said.

At least three state committees have looked at the black bear problem since 1992, and each has recommended lifting the hunting moratorium.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration rejected that approach, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office this year promising to give hunters more of an opportunity to be heard in DNR decisions.

"The previous administration just didn't want to hear that conclusion," said Steve Huettner, president of the Maryland Sportsmen's Association.

Peditto insisted the DNR's decision has nothing to do with politics -- and everything to do with science. Maryland is the only state in the region without at least limited bear hunting.

"The research tells us that our bear density is actually very high, much higher than our surrounding states," he said. "It's very cut and dried. Our bear population is capable of sustained additional lethal control."

Between 25 and 28 bears die each year in car crashes, and DNR officials kill a few that have become severe nuisances. With a target of cutting the population by about 20 percent -- or about 60 bears next year -- DNR officials likely would limit the hunt to about 30 bears over a few days next October in an area west of Cumberland.

Even with the hunting season, the agency would continue an extensive management program that includes trapping and transplanting, limited euthanasia and conditioning black bears to avoid humans with pepper spray, rubber buckshot, dogs and noise-makers, Peditto said.

"Most importantly, we will continue our education campaign to help folks understand what it means to live with black bears in Maryland," he said.

But animal rights advocates say almost all conflicts between bears and people can be managed through nonlethal means, with DNR sharpshooters brought in as a last resort.

"We always felt you had to target the bear that was causing the problem at the time when the problem was occurring," said John Hadidian, director of urban wildlife programs at the Humane Society of the United States and a member of Maryland's most recent black bear task force. "This [DNR plan] is tantamount to trying to control crime by shooting into a crowd. ... What are the chances you kill the bears that are causing the conflicts?"

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