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Outdoors: Maryland's expanded bear hunt a polarizing topic

Maryland is expanding the area in which hunters can kill bears.

Black bears are moving toward Baltimore, with hunters in hot pursuit.

On Monday, for the first time, Maryland expands its four-day bear hunt beyond the westernmost counties of Garrett and Allegany. This week, Ursus americanus can be taken in Washington and Frederick counties as well. The reason? State officials say the bear population is expanding eastward, and that their growth must be checked and managed.

"Picture a wave moving slowly across the landscape, from west to east. We'd like to get ahead of it before it becomes a tsunami," said Harry Spiker, Black Bear Project leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

To that end, hunters with permits will fan out over four counties to stalk their quarry in Maryland's 13th annual bear harvest. Last year, a record 95 animals were killed. Officials estimate there are 2,000 adult and sub-adult bears roaming Maryland, a scattering of which have been seen even further east.

"This year, we had one bear who spent multiple weeks in the suburban areas of Howard, Baltimore and Prince Georges counties. It spent one week right up against the [Baltimore] beltway," Spiker said. "These are juvenile bears, maybe 1 1/2 years old, who've been kicked out by the sow and forced to find territories of their own."

Next to hunters, cars are the biggest cause of bear deaths. Last year in Maryland, 65 were road kills.

Unlike brown bears and grizzlies, black bears are purportedly no threat to man.

"This isn't a shark-in-the-water thing," Spiker said. "There has never been a reported black bear attack on a human in Maryland. We have bears and people sharing the landscape all over Garrett County. In fact, bears tend to be more tolerant of people than people are of bears."

The four-day kill has its critics, who contend that the state is pandering to (1) sportsmen and women clamoring for a trophy hunt, and (2) farmers who contend that the bears, once threatened with extinction, are damaging their crops. The fact that the hunt has now expanded only roils those critics more.

"Hunters are the ones controlling DNR. They want bear heads for their walls and bear rugs for their floors," said Joe Lamp, spokesman for the activist group Maryland Votes For Animals. As for farmers, Lamp said, "a random shoot won't keep a rogue bear out of anyone's corn field. This hunt is like shooting fish in a barrel."

Hunting one mischievous bear at a time doesn't address the larger problem, Spiker said.

"Not long ago, we went into a farmer's corn field in Garrett County to chase a bear, and nine of them came out. This is not about nuisance management, but population management."

Lamp, who served 14 years on the state's Wildlife Advisory Commission, said surveys show a majority of Marylanders oppose the hunts. Spiker, who has managed the bear population since 2001, has polls that show otherwise.

"I've never met anyone who has 'no opinion' about bears," Spiker said. "We are raised with them in our pop culture. Some people love them and others hate them. Some are scared to death of bears, and some want them behind every tree. Bears are an iconic species that people have an infatuation with — and our job is to try to manage them for everybody."

Since 2004, when the hunt began, 758 bears have been shot and killed. Nonetheless, their population is increasing at an annual clip of 8-12 percent, according to DNR estimates.

"We've slowed their rate of growth to allow people time to learn to live with the bears," Spiker said.

Still, activists such as Lamp see no reason to expand the hunt and to stalk those creatures who are gradually moving east.

"It's not like the bears are the Abenaki Indians, about to attack Fort Frederick during the French and Indian War," Lamp said. "But I guarantee you that the DNR will play first and foremost to the 1.7 percent of Marylanders who are hunters."

Not so, Spiker said. Subtract that minority and the hunt would go on.

"It's the responsible way to manage the population," he said. "We do this for all citizens while we educate them on sharing the land with bears."

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