Females bear down in opener


October 25, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON


With sleet and fog and temperatures in the 30s, yesterday wasn't a fit day out for man or beast. One hunter turned in his paperwork in the pre-dawn hours and headed home even before it was legal to shoot.

So it was up to a wide-eyed, 8-year-old girl from Garrett County to lead the way on the first day of the black bear hunting season, a day on which 15 bears were taken.

Sierra Stiles took down a 211-pound bear at 75 yards, coolly reloading her single-shot, .243-caliber rifle before placing a second bullet right next to the first in the bear's chest.

Dressed in camo from her cap to her boots and teeth chattering from the cold, Sierra fielded questions like an outdoors show TV host while Department of Natural Resources biologists weighed and took tissue samples from her bear.

It was, she said, "the first bear I'd ever seen, except for baby bears in a zoo."

The Kitzmiller Elementary School third-grader was well-prepared, scoring a 98 on her state Hunter Safety Course, helping her father scout the forest's edge on her great uncle's farm and sighting-in her brand new gun.

She got her bear just a half-hour into the season and had it at the Mount Nebo check station a little before 10, giving her the rest of the day to wrap her hands around a big cup of hot chocolate and bask in the warmth of a family beaming with pride.

Back at school today, she suspects her classmates will be "a little bit jealous and a little happy."

Suggestion? Next year, the school should put Sierra in charge of field trips.

Several hours after Sierra announced her presence with authority, another young woman arrived with a pickup truck full of bear.

With her dad at her side, Tera Roach of Reisterstown shot a 174-pound bear. Like Sierra, she was armed with a .243-caliber rifle and nerves of steel. Unlike the youngster, the 23-year-old receptionist has been hunting for a decade and has trapped two bears in Maine.

"The ladies are taking over," cracked Paul Peditto, head of the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Service. "And that's not a bad thing."

With women constituting the fastest-growing segment in the hunting community, that's no joke. Of the 368 hunters participating yesterday, 26, or 12.5 percent, were women.

Programs such as DNR's "Becoming an Outdoors Woman," and the National Wild Turkey Federation's "Women in the Outdoors" are opening doors, teaching women the basics of fishing, hunting and camping.

"One of the biggest roadblocks to becoming involved is finding out where and how to start. We provide everything from A to Z," said Karina Blizzard, who runs the state's program.

If there was any doubt about the next generation, it disappeared when 9-year-old Emily Martin arrived with a 200-pound bear she killed with a single shot after sitting in a stand with her dad for nearly 12 hours.

The Garrett County fourth-grader aced her Hunter Safety Course two years ago and shot her first deer-an 8-point-last year. But this, she said, was the most fun she's ever had.

If those three young hunters represent the future of hunting, Ed Arrow is the future of wildlife management.

Forty-two hunters went into the woods yesterday wearing GPS units supplied by the West Virginia University grad student to track their movements.

DNR had done the same with 14 bears, turning them into big, fuzzy radio stations that smell bad.

But before you think this is some kind of wildlife Pac-Man game, understand that this project is Arrow's master's thesis.

"It pretty hard to find an area of black bears that hasn't been studied. But there's very little research on hunters because it's been impractical to do it. Before GPS units, the only way was with hunter surveys," Arrow said.

By downloading data from the human and bear radios and overlaying the information on an aerial photo of Garrett County, Arrow and DNR managers can see just how often the hunters and the hunted are like ships passing in the night.

What they may find is that spots favored by hunters because they are easy to get to and don't require a lot of uphill walking are the very places bears enjoy - especially during hunting season.

"It's been done on deer, but it's never been done on bears," said Harry Spiker, the head of DNR's Black Bear Management Team. "It has the potential to improve bear management across the country."

On the conservation side, wildlife managers can use data to ensure hunters don't clean out the bear population in an easy-off, easy-on state park by adjusting hunting regulations.

By midday, as the sleet changed to snow and temperatures dropped, it appeared that veteran hunters might be having second thoughts about spending another eight hours communing with nature. About a half--dozen collars were quietly turned in at the check station.

"Next year," said one Natural Resources Police officer, grinning, "give them to the girls."


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