IN THE past 50 years, much has changed in Maryland. But one thing has remained the same - the state's small population of black bears has been protected from trophy hunting. This may soon change, as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Department of Natural Resources have just proposed a bear hunting season for 2004.
A bear hunt, however, would provide no relief to the citizens in Western Maryland who want concrete solutions to bear conflicts. It may be psychologically soothing, but shooting bears at random does not target the individual bears causing problems and does not address conflicts with surviving bears. It's like trying to reduce crime by shooting into a crowded room.
There is no scientific evidence even suggesting that reducing the number of bears would correlate with reducing the number of conflicts. The conflicts fluctuate depending on the annual food availability for bears, the number of people living and vacationing near bear habitat and the aggressiveness of public education regarding ways to minimize encounters with bears. The assumption that a bear hunt would reduce bear conflicts is a faulty one.
While hunting bears would not solve bear problems, it might make those problems worse. In states where bears are hunted, hunters tend to take large, adult male bears from the population, leaving the juvenile males more room to expand their range. It is these young males who are more likely to cause problems at homes, campsites and farms. Hunting is not a solution to a problem, but a commitment to a permanent problem.
In fact, it was a young male bear that killed an infant in New York's Catskill region in August 2002 - a tragedy that has been used by bear hunting proponents as a rallying cry for their cause. New York has a very aggressive bear hunting season, which apparently did not prevent that tragic incident but may have facilitated it. The real safety threat is not the bears, but rather the armed hunters who would stalk a few hundred bears in Maryland's forests.
Instead of placing people and bears in danger, we should use and expand the effective, nonlethal techniques to prevent bear conflicts and agricultural damage. Aversive conditioning with rubber pellets and scare tactics can teach bears to behave better. Public education can teach homeowners and vacationers to store food and trash properly and prevent attracting bears. Cooperative extension programs can provide assistance to farmers and electric fencing materials to beekeepers. These techniques should be the cornerstone of any program to reduce bear conflicts. And if they are not enough, they should be expanded and better funded.
Moreover, the DNR does not have the biological data necessary to justify a bear hunting season. With only 266 to 437 black bears estimated to exist in Maryland, any hunt or lethal control program could cause significant damage to the bear population. This should be of serious concern, considering that the number of adult female productive bears is far lower than the total population estimates, and that bears are one of the slowest-reproducing mammal species in North America.
DNR biologists told a citizen task force on black bears last year that Maryland's bear population could sustain a hunt, but they could not provide any data to substantiate that opinion. When asked to provide data, the DNR responded that neighboring states such as Pennsylvania can sustain a bear hunt, so Maryland must be able to sustain one, too. Comparing a state such as Pennsylvania, which has 15,000 bears, to a state such as Maryland that has a few hundred bears is scientifically flawed at best and intentionally misleading at worst.
Black bears were nearly extinct in Maryland only 50 years ago. It is a testament to the successful environmental and habitat conservation programs in Maryland that this unique, majestic species has been able to make a comeback. Maryland citizens should be proud of this environmental heritage and protection of this remarkable species, and a hunting season on black bears would turn back the clock on a half-century of success.
Hunters have no shortage of targets here in Maryland. Governor Ehrlich and the DNR should maintain Maryland's 50-year tradition of bear protection, and should keep black bears off the trophy list.
Michael Markarian is president of the Fund for Animals, which is based in Silver Spring.