Bears are fair game, says governor's aide

Humane Society had renewed effort to stop W.Md. hunt

October 16, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN REPORTER

With a new administration in Annapolis and bear season starting next week, the Humane Society of the United States has stepped up its campaign to stop the hunting of black bears in Maryland.

"This trophy hunt was demanded by the NRA," the animal-rights group proclaimed in a full-page ad in The Sun yesterday. "But now it's time for Gov. Martin O'Malley to turn the situation around and restore Maryland's half-century tradition of protecting black bears."

The ad listed the governor's phone number under a big picture of a bear cub, and hundreds of calls poured into O'Malley's office yesterday, officials said.

Still, the governor plans to continue to allow the hunt as part of the state's effort to control the bear population, said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

"The governor certainly understands and respects the diverse viewpoints on the issue, but the growing bear population and its impact on citizens, especially in Western Maryland, requires some action," Abbruzzese said.

In 2004, then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, allowed the resumption of bear hunting in Maryland for the first time in 51 years amid reports that growing numbers of the animals were venturing onto residential property in Garrett and Allegany counties.

Hunters killed 20 of the state's roughly 500 bears the first year, 40 in 2005 and 41 last year. Nevertheless, the number of bears has risen about 10 percent a year - and the animals keep getting hit by cars and frightening homeowners, said Harry Spiker, game mammal section leader at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The hunt is necessary to prevent the bear population from rising too rapidly, Spiker said: "If you have too many bears on a landscape where there are a lot of people, there are too many confrontations. And bears become dependent on human resources."

In addition to shooting bears, the state educates people in Western Maryland to lock their trash in animal-proof containers and not leave pet food out at night on porches.

This year's bear hunt will start Monday and could run through the next Saturday, depending on how long it takes to kill the state's goal of 50 bears, Spiker said.

More than 2,800 hunters - a record - applied for permits this year, and the state selected 220 winners by lottery. Licensed hunters are required to call the state wildlife agency when they shoot a bear and take the animal to one of the state's weigh-in stations in Western Maryland.

Black bears were once abundant across the region, but during the 1700s and 1800s they were nearly wiped out in Maryland by bounty hunting and by the clearing of forests to create farmland.

The state banned bear hunting in 1953. But the Ehrlich administration let the hunt resume, arguing that the return of forests over abandoned farmland in Western Maryland had allowed bears to proliferate.

Today, at least 50 bears a year die in the state when they're hit by cars. And state wildlife managers get about 400 calls a year from residents of Garrett and Allegany counties startled to see a bear in their garage or eating from their trash cans. The calls seem to be moving eastward - suggesting the bear population is spreading, said Spiker.

One person eager to see the hunt continue is Charlotte Stanton, whose home on wooded property in Grantsville was attacked by a rabid black bear Aug. 29.

Stanton, 39, said she was at home with her husband and two children when they saw a black bear climb up on their fence. She said she screamed to try to scare it away, but instead of running, it charged and tried to break in the door - which she held shut.

"The bear went to the window, and started yanking out the air conditioner," she said. "Me and the bear wrestled over the air conditioner, with the bear trying to pull it out and me trying to hold it in."

Finally, she said, her husband, Michael, found his shotgun and shot the bear. Tests showed it had rabies. All four members of the family had to get rabies shots because they had touched the bear's blood and saliva.

"The state needs to let people shoot more than 50 bears because that's not near enough," Stanton said. "These bears just aren't afraid of humans anymore."

Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Gaithersburg-based Humane Society of the United States, said the advocacy organization ran newspaper ads and lobbied to try to stop the 2004 bear hunt, but then gave up, concluding that Ehrlich wasn't going to budge.

But now, with a new leader in the governor's office, the group has fresh hopes, Markarian said. The society bought a full-page ad in yesterday's Sun that showed a cub perched in a tree under the word "Trophy?" The group also sent e-mails to 25,000 of its members in Maryland, urging them to call O'Malley's office and demand an end to the hunt.

Markarian said he hopes Maryland will follow New Jersey's example: That state stopped its bear hunt last year. Instead of shooting bears, New Jersey game managers use rubber pellets and loud noises to scare bears away from homes.

"We don't think it's a partisan issue. But we do have hopes that Governor O'Malley has a more sensible and humane approach to the issue," Markarian said.

Garrett County Administrator Monty Pagenhardt said he'd like to see the bear hunt continue. The event doesn't bring a lot of money to Western Maryland because most of the hunters are local. But residents feel the bear populations need to be kept in check, he said.

"There are still a lot of bears around here," Pagenhardt said. "My daughter saw one a few weeks ago coming up our driveway."

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