The first bear checked at Maryland's seventh annual hunt… (Baltimore Sun photo by Candus…)
Oakland — — After her mother died of cancer "too young" and her father was diagnosed with the disease, Leslie Nightingale sat down and wrote her bucket list.
Take a cruise, ride in a hot-air balloon, go skydiving, finish her master's degree, shoot a bear.
"You just never know what's going to happen and when it's going to happen," said Nightingale, 39, explaining the list. "Life's too short to hesitate."
On Monday she checked off the first of the items, shooting a 234-pound black bear during the opening minutes of Maryland's season.
"A lot of people don't think a woman can hunt and I don't like that," said Nightingale, a juvenile substance abuse counselor from Allegany County. "I wanted to prove them wrong."
And how. Nightingale's outing was her first time hunting, the first time she fired her borrowed rifle at anything other than a stationary target and the first bear of the state's seventh season.
"I can't believe I'm the first one. I wasn't even expecting it this morning. I was thinking Day Two or Day Three," she said.
A record 3,850 hunters applied in September for 260 permits, which were awarded by lottery. The quota-driven hunt will end when hunters kill 65-90 bears. Warm weather and an abundant crop of acorns are expected to keep the bears from roaming far afield and likely will stretch the hunt into the weekend.
Black bears, once near extinction in Maryland, have rebounded under a Department of Natural Resources management plan. Over the first six seasons, hunters culled 276 bears from the state's growing and expanding population, estimated at 550 adult animals in Garrett and Allegany counties, the hunt zone. However, bear sightings have been confirmed in 12 other counties.
About 70 percent of the harvest occurs on private land. The DNR attempts to match hunters with farmers and other landowners who have had nuisance bears.
Harry Spiker, DNR's chief bear biologist, says hunting, when combined with relocating nuisance bears and educating the public to keep food sources locked away, has helped reduce conflicts in Western Maryland.
Natural Resources Police officers patrolling overnight for illegal hunting activities issued 10 citations for hunting over bait and confiscated a bear carcass that will be processed and donated to a local charity.
"This year, the highlight reel goes to Natural Resources Police for putting in the hours to not only make the cases but also to step in and make the majority of those cases before the bears were killed," said Paul Peditto, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service.
Hunters charged with violations were: Charles Dock Crigger II, 52, and Earnold Lee Crigger, 52, both of Middle River; Jerome Stanley Ziemski, 55, of Baltimore; Rex Allen Penick, 55, and Terri Lynn Penick, 48, both of Westminster; James Bennett Wood, 42, of Westminster; Donald Sneckenberger, 75, and Doy Sneckenberger, 46, both of Hagerstown; Donald David Gutermuth, 53, of Baldwin; and Lee Clifford Brenneman, 63, of Accident. Brenneman is an outfitter who sets up hunters for a fee.
But the vast majority of those in the woods were there to test their skills and fill their freezers with meat.
Just before 7:30 a.m., Nightingale was sitting against a tree along the western shoreline of Deep Creek Lake, when she heard movement in the woods. In the early-morning light, she made out the form of a large bear about 50 yards away. It stepped behind a tree, and when it emerged, Nightingale was ready.
"I was really nervous and I couldn't sight it at first," she said. "I took a deep breath. I shot it. And then I started to shake."
With trembling fingers, she called her father, who was skeptical, and texted her sister. Then she looked for help to get the bear out of the woods. Her boyfriend, cousin and a friend wrestled the bear into her pick-up truck and to the check station at the Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area.
Nightingale hasn't decided what she'll do with the hide, but she didn't hesitate when asked what she planned to do with the meat.
"You eat the bear," she said. "I didn't kill it to not eat it."