Maryland's bear season

August 03, 2004

THE RETURN of black bears to Western Maryland has been a great wildlife success story. As few as a dozen bears traipsed through these hills five decades ago. A 2000 survey estimated the number at between 266 and 437, and state officials think it's up to 500 or so today.

It's been a man-made recovery - generated mostly by conservation practices. People have learned to respect and accommodate the bears.

So it couldn't have been too big a surprise when, after two years of close study and debate, officials at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced their intention to open a bear hunt, the first since the 1950s. Up to 200 people will be allowed to hunt, but only 30 bears can be taken. The plan calls for a one-week season in late October and another in December if the quota hasn't been filled. Organizers say it's a conservative approach - taking about 10 percent of a bear population that's growing twice that fast.

The hunt has generated considerable protests. Critics say that the season is premature and that the bear population hasn't been studied sufficiently. They say conflicts between humans and bears can best be resolved through public education. And they've recommended using more nonlethal strategies to control growth.

We can agree on at least one point: More needs to be done to teach people how to live safely around bears. Life is not a Walt Disney cartoon. Adult bears can grow up to 400 pounds, and while bears are largely vegetarian (berries, acorns and insects are diet staples), they also have a taste for the contents of garbage cans and bird feeders. Crops are damaged, livestock killed and people frightened by bear encounters. Last year, 37 bears were killed in accidents on Maryland roads, twice as many as in 1999.

Hunting Maryland bears seemed to us unwise in years past, but DNR makes a convincing case. Hunting game is, after all, an accepted sport in this state, a useful way to manage wildlife. Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia have bear hunting seasons - but not a higher density of black bears. The point of Maryland's efforts is not just to limit the black bear's population but also its range - the state doesn't want bears to become commonplace in the Baltimore or D.C. suburbs, a sensible goal.

Hunting isn't everyone's cup of tea, and we can respect those who aren't interested in killing wild animals. But hunters are among this state's most effective conservationists. It's not appropriate to exempt bears from the same treatment given deer, waterfowl, fish and many other species because some people find them cuter.

Let the bear hunting season go on as planned. But this fall, let's also use this occasion to better educate people on how we can share our state with Ursus americanus.

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