Roaming bears in suburbia not going away
Wildlife sightings in Baltimore area becoming annual occurrence
Megan Moe's 6-year-old daughter Madison was the first to spot this black bear in the back yard of a home near Aberdeen Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Megan Moe / June 9, 2012)
A bear visited northern Baltimore County last week, stirring up the Jacksonville community when it was sighted near an elementary school and then in a resident's yard. There were bear sightings last weekend in Harford County, and two Aberdeen men on Wednesday were the latest to report having seen one in Susquehanna State Park.
It might be hard to convince excited suburbanites who have never seen a bear outside a zoo, but wildlife biologists say roving bears in the Baltimore area are not that unusual. And as the state's bear population continues to grow, more are likely to be passing through.
"I don't think it's a phenomenon that's going away," said Harry Spiker, bear biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Each year since 2003, according to figures supplied by Spiker, there have been three to 38 bear sightings in Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. The animals frequently ramble across county lines, so some of the sightings might have been of the same bear.
"It's not uncommon for a young male to travel over 100 miles," Spiker said.
Historically, black bears lived throughout Maryland, but as settlers cut down forests and cleared land for farming, the state lost most of its bear habitat. By the mid-1950s only a few bears were thought to remain, and hunting them was halted.
The bear population has rebounded, though, as the state's forests have regenerated, providing shelter and food. The most recent estimate of Maryland's black bear population, in 2005, reported more than 600 adult and "sub-adult" black bears statewide, with the breeding population confined to Garrett, Allegany, Washington and Frederick counties.
State officials reopened bear hunting in 2004, and 60 to 70 have been shot each year since. Spiker said hunting was resumed in part to slow the bears' spread into more populated areas. About 50 bears a year are killed by vehicles, and biologists say such fatal encounters are spreading eastward with the roaming males.
Despite the bear deaths, the animals' population has been growing about 12 percent per year, officials say. A new estimate is being finalized.
The reason for the bears' wanderings might sound familiar.
"Essentially, they're teenagers that got kicked out and are looking for their place in the world," Spiker said.
Young males start roaming after being run off by their mothers when they are about two years old. Many head into other states, but some wander eastward into the state's increasingly developed heart, following rivers.
"They'll move through those corridors, hop out and find a bunch of traffic and things they don't want, and get back in those greener areas," the bear biologist said.
Young bears have wandered into practically every corner of the state searching for suitable habitat, biologists say. The bears travel up to 20 miles a day, and while the animals often graze on grasses, dig for grubs or insects, or strip bark from trees to chew on the soft new growth beneath, when in settled areas they'll go for "fast food" from trash cans and bird feeders.
"We've had them as far south as St. Mary's County," Spiker said. That bear, in 2008, eventually turned up in Arbutus along the Beltway, where natural resources staff had to capture him.
In most cases, biologists prefer to leave the animal alone so it will move on on its own; it's safer for both the animal and people. Capturing bears typically requires shooting them with a tranquilizer dart, but the drug can take 15 or 20 minutes to work as the animal panics.
State wildlife biologists believe the sightings since last week in Baltimore and Harford counties were all of the same bear. Reports of sightings came initially from the Sparks area early last week, then on Papermill Road in Phoenix, then in Jacksonville, where it prompted an elementary school to reconsider plans for an outdoor end-of-year ceremony.
Over the weekend, sightings shifted to Harford County, where on Saturday a sheriff's deputy spotted a bear in the backyard of a home on Montreal Drive west of Aberdeen. A sheriff's office spokesman described it as two to three years old, about 6 feet tall and 250 to 300 pounds.