Youngest marksman gets her bear first, as hunt begins in Md.


OAKLAND -- It was a school morning, but Sierra Stiles wasn't gathering her books. Instead, in the pre-dawn blackness, the 8-year-old pulled on a camouflage shirt, pants and boots, and grabbed a high-powered hunting rifle.

The third-grader from Western Maryland had beaten out 1,992 applicants - mostly men - to be selected through a state lottery as one of only 200 to obtain hunting licenses for Maryland's second black bear hunt in a half-century.

Hiding with her father behind trees on her family's farm, Sierra used a .243-caliber rifle to shoot a 211-pound male black bear yesterday morning, the first kill of the season, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. In the end, the youngest and smallest hunter also proved to be the quickest to claim a trophy.

"I'm so proud of her," said Robert Harvey, 65, her great-uncle, who owns the farm in Kitzmiller where the bear was shot. "It's good to get these kids outside, so they can really learn."

Sierra's bear, which she plans to turn into a rug, was one of 13 to be registered with game officers yesterday at the Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area just north of Oakland, with two others weighed-in at a state office in Frostburg. It was the first day of a season expected to last three or four days, or until at least 40 are killed, twice as many as last year, state officials said. The plan is to kill no more than 55 bears this year.

Barred in Maryland since 1953, black bear hunting was resumed last fall in Garrett and western Allegany counties by wildlife managers who concluded that the animals were no longer endangered, with at least 500 in the state. Animal-rights protesters filed a failed lawsuit last year to try to halt the hunt, and two activists marched in Annapolis yesterday.

"Last year, the first bear killed was a cub, and this year, the first trophy hunter was an 8-year-old girl," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. `This is a terrible cruelty."

There is no minimum legal age for hunting in Maryland. But the state has never licensed a hunter younger than about 7 because all hunters must pass a nine-hour safety class, which includes a live-fire drill to prove they can safely carry, load and shoot, said Paul Peditto, director of wildlife and heritage services at the department.

Two of the first three hunters to bring in bears for weighing yesterday were female. Overall, 46 out of 368 hunters (including the 200 permit holders and their companions) were female, or about 12 percent. A 9-year-old girl from Garrett County shot a 200-pound bear.

"Anywhere you go for hunting these days, you see a lot more women," said Tera Roach, a 23-year-old receptionist from Reisterstown who shot a 147-pound bear in Garrett County yesterday.

Peditto said he was highly impressed by Sierra, who scored a 98 on her written hunter safety test.

"Some people are going to be curious about this young hunter, but her actions show she's safe, responsible and dedicated," Peditto said.

The day started early for Sierra, at 4:58 a.m. It was a cold, rainy, miserable morning on her family's Garrett County farm. Her mother shook her awake after setting an alarm for herself. Sierra said she hadn't been able to sleep much because she was so excited about the hunt.

After dressing in camouflage, she spooned down some cereal as her dog Jack bounded around the kitchen. Then she headed out with her father and his uncle. Before the sun rose, they hopped into her father's cherry-red Ford pickup and drove to the corner of a field. They hid behind trees.

As they waited in the rain, listening, Donald Stiles, a 28-year- old coal miner, thought about a wager he'd made with his daughter.

"We had a little bet that she'd get a bear and I wouldn't get one at all," he said. "After all, she was the one who got the license, and so I was hunting on her license."

Something large moved at the edge of the misty field.

My great-uncle saw "a big, dark shadow, but didn't know what it was," Sierra said. "But my dad knew it was a bear.

"I was surprised to see a bear in front of me," said Sierra, who stands about 4 1/2 feet tall and has long, sandy hair. "I froze up and I was scared, because bears will eat anything."

They waited until the bear was about 50 yards away. Sierra took aim.

"I pulled the trigger, then shot a second time, and it ran a little ways before falling," she said. "I was jumping around, yelling, `I got the bear! I got the bear!'"

Sierra and her father were the first to haul their kill yesterday to the state weigh-in station at Mount Nebo. Tim Kvech, a 38-year-old financial planner from Columbia, was the second, trucking in a bear less than half the size, a 90-pound female.

"Man, that girl must have been smooth, to reload a single-shot rifle like that and kill a bear," Kvech said, shaking his head. "My 9-year- old would have been scared to death."

Sierra's father backed his truck into a garage at the state offices, where state biologists bound the bear by its paws and hung it, tongue lolling, from a scale. They snipped samples of its hair, tongue and teeth for scientific testing.

Sierra, trembling with the cold, said classmates at Kitzmiller Elementary will probably be happy for her.

"But they're also going to be jealous, because they couldn't go hunting today," she said.

Sierra said she had a teddy bear at home, but had never seen a live bear before, except in a zoo.

Now Sierra is giving advice to other hunters, regardless of age.

"Do not ever try to shoot a bear in the wrong place," she lectured before the television cameras. "They can come at you, or they'll take off and you'll never find it. Hunt safe and be safe."

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