Some in W.Md. lament un-bear-able neighbors

Hunt: It's time to start shooting, they say, when bears are willing to invade an occupied house in search of food.

October 12, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

ACCIDENT - Tess Foster was slumbering on her couch in front of the television last fall when a 250-pound black bear unlatched the back door of her house in far Western Maryland and embraced the freezer, which was brimming with home-butchered pork.

She screamed, "Get out of here!" but the bear calmly proceeded with its work. The animal wrestled the Frigidaire halfway out the door, spilling paper-wrapped bundles of meat.

Tess' husband, Tim, who loves bacon, screamed even louder, waving his arms. The bear backed up a few steps - then charged the unarmed math teacher.

As animal rights activists seek to block Maryland's first bear hunt in 51 years, the Fosters and many others in rural Garrett County have a different view: It's time to get the bears under control, and shooting some of them is the best way to do it.

The number of black bears in Maryland has risen from about 12 in 1950 to roughly 500 today. The once endangered animals are back because of the success of hunting restrictions and the return of forests that had been reduced by farming and logging.

Development has also spread into bear territory, and some bears are becoming like raccoons, comfortable around people and brunching from their trash cans.

So Oct. 25, the state plans to start allowing hunters to kill about 30 bears a year. The goal is to keep the population in check and instill a fear of humans in the animals.

Michael Markarian, president of the Silver Spring-based Fund for Animals, objects. His group joined the Humane Society of the United States in suing to try to stop the hunt. He points out that no human has ever been killed by a bear in Maryland.

"Black bears are timid creatures that never even bother people. They've been protected here in Maryland for more than 50 years, and it's taken us that long to get from a dozen to a few hundred today," Markarian said.

"There's no overpopulation, and there's no reason to start shooting them. "

The Fosters say the animal rights activists haven't spent much time with bears in their kitchens.

Return of the bear

"Had it been a human being stealing my freezer, I would have kicked his rear," said Tim Foster, 43, who teaches at Garrett College. "But the bear does have those claws. And so when it lunged at me, I ran back into my bedroom and got my rifle."

When he returned, the bear was gone - leaving his wife, 2-year-old son and bacon in peace. But not for long. Their house was invaded twice more by the bear and her cubs after the freezer incident last fall.

"I like bears too, but these suburban animal rights people don't know what it's like to have a bear break into their house," said Tess Foster, 34, hugging their son, Garrett.

"They have a totally different lifestyle experience. I think we should control the bear population like we control the deer population, by hunting."

Many in Garrett County share a similar perspective, saying they've had to alter their daily routines because of anxieties about the growing bear population.

Some have been arming themselves with pepper spray and flashlights when they go for walks at night. Others stash their garbage in the basement until they haul it to the dump.

They've stopped feeding their dogs on the porch, for fear of attracting bears with the food. A few restaurant owners have raised electric fences around their Dumpsters.

Peggy Gosnell, who owns the Bear Creek Crossing Bed and Breakfast near the quiet crossroads known as Accident, said she started carrying a handgun when she mowed the lawn after her dog was mauled by a black bear.

"The bears are clearly re-colonizing this area and moving into places they weren't before," Gosnell said.

Some part-time residents who drive from Washington and other cities to vacation at nearby Deep Creek Lake said they are ambivalent about the bear hunt, as are some of the business owners who cater to this summer crowd.

"There's been a lot of development around here recently, and that's been driving the bears out of where they normally live," said Karen Petrie, a 50-year-old nurse from Pittsburgh whose family owns a house beside the lake. "I'm afraid of the bears when I see one in my driveway, but I'm sad to see that they're going to be hunted."

A taste for mutton

Locals don't feel the same warm fuzzies about the bears. Todd Friend, who owns a small farm, said he shot and killed a 345-pound black bear after it ate one of his pregnant sheep and then returned for second helping of mutton.

He said state investigators grilled him like a murder suspect until they found incriminating wool in the dead bear's stomach.

"I see at least one bear a week, and I need to protect my livestock," said Friend.

Tim Foster, the math teacher, grew up in suburban Washington. But he said his family has learned from about 50 encounters with the animals over the past six years.

Once, their son was playing in a sandbox when a bear snuffled up to him. Another time, the family was barbecuing a hog when a bear flipped open the grill and bit a hunk out of their dinner.

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