As black-bear population rises in Md., hunting season begins without quota system

For the first time, Maryland has not set a limit on the number of black bears taken in this season's hunt.

Father-daughter bonding can take many forms, but hunting bears often isn't one of them. Yet that's what John Forman and his daughter will do Monday when black-bear hunting season opens in Maryland.

Forman, of Oakland, and Stephanie Dunlap, of Lexington Park, are among the 500 hunters who received permits for the 12th annual four-day managed shoot in Garrett and Allegany counties. A record 4,300 applicants entered the lottery, run by the state's Department of Natural Resources in an effort to slow the growth of the bear population in Western Maryland. An estimated 1,000-plus adult bears live in the hunt area, an increase of 700 since the state began "harvesting" them in 2004.

"My goal is to get a bear, though I'd rather my daughter got one. I've lived that life," said Forman, 62, who has bagged four bears in Canada but none here. "In the past, we've had a great time together hunting deer; she got to learn how things work in the natural world."

Their odds of bagging a bear aren't good — about 12 percent, according to state bear biologist Harry Spiker. The 2014 hunt netted 69 bears, or 14 more than are killed, on average, by cars each year. This season, for the first time, Maryland has not set a limit on the total number of bears taken.

"These are tough critters to hunt," Spiker said. "They are masters of their environment, with a nose as good as a white-tailed deer. In the woods, they stick to heavy cover, like rhododendron thickets. It's amazing that an animal so large, with such broad feet, can be so cautious. When you hear a bear coming, it either sounds like a freight train or a ghost."

Rugged terrain that denies hunters won't stop their prey, Spiker said.

"Steep slopes don't bother bears a bit, and with the slightest sign of trouble, they can 'hole down' for days," he said. "They are one tough quarry. That's part of the draw, the challenge, for hunters."

On Monday, sportsmen armed with rifles, shotguns, handguns and bows will fan out over two counties to stalk Ursus americanus, the largest terrestrial mammal native to Maryland. The biggest ever killed in a DNR hunt, a 71/2-year-old male, weighed 614 pounds; the average bear taken weighs 150 pounds.

There's no law against shooting cubs, though youngsters account for just 5 percent of the kill.

"At this time of year, the average cub weighs about 80 pounds, and at 100 yards, it's hard to estimate a bear's size," Spiker said. "We educate hunters about how to tell their size, and most choose not to shoot cubs on their own."

Currently, black bears are hunted in 32 states. In 1953, with its black-bear population nearly extinct, Maryland banned the practice for more than 50 years. Now the population is increasing to the point where the state might consider extending the hunt into Washington and Frederick counties.

"The potential is there," Spiker said.

Forman, a forester for a private firm, and his daughter, a government contractor, will hunker down with high-powered .30-caliber rifles in woods he'd rather not name. Like fishermen, hunters have their choice spots.

The hunt, Forman said, is "a good thing to keep the population controlled. Bears tear up farmers' crops; they love corn and soybeans and are sort of a nuisance, like a giant rodent. I have a Christmas-tree farm on the edge of town and lost nine trees this year to bears who clawed them, ripped off branches and bit their tops out. I guess they like the scent of the trees."

Should he shoot a bear, Forman said he would eat the meat and make a rug.

"Bear has a coarse texture and tastes more like pork than beef. It's got to be prepared right, in a roast," he said. Already, there's a bear rug mounted on his basement wall and a full bear mounted in his living room. That one weighed nearly 400 pounds.

Leaving empty-handed wouldn't be disappointing "if I had a good time," he said. "Success doesn't happen that often. This isn't a 'canned' hunt. It's not like shooting fish in a barrel or ducks on a pond. These are free-ranging animals, so it's a matter of timing.

"We'll be out there, rain or shine, from daylight to dark. At first, sitting there, you wonder if a bear is going to come along; then you think about everything that you're not getting done at home. Finally, you sit back, relax, and enjoy the moment and the company."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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