Getting Closer to Nature than Anyone Had Planned

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It wasn't until the black mass on the gravel road began ambling toward her that Sherry Frantz began to run.

"I couldn't quite figure out what it was at first. I'm nearsighted anyway. But when it began coming toward me, it became obvious I was about to have my first face-to-face with a black bear," she recounted.

Ms. Frantz, 44, a native of Garrett County, knew that one of the basic rules of meeting bears face-to-face is not to run. "My head knew to either stay put or walk away slowly. But my legs wouldn't listen," she said. "Luckily it all turned out OK. I made it home intact, though my heart was in my throat."

Since that close encounter, Ms. Frantz -- who had come to relish the sight of bears, especially those accompanied by cubs, strolling through her front yard -- experienced a different reaction. But that "heart in throat" experience is being shared by more and more Marylanders as the resurgence of once endangered species continues to be a success story.

Based on bear trapping and tagging data collected during the past five years, Maryland's black bear population is estimated to be between 150 and 170. Those are startling population figures when as few as 50 years ago the black bear was considered extinct in the state.

The return of the black bear is a success story prompting some philosophical discussions about man's relationship with other creatures.

"We get calls from people saying things like, 'There's a wild animal in my backyard.' But what people don't realize is that we're in their front yard," says Gary Yoder, Western Maryland's regional liaison for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Since the protection of black bears and their habitat in the western mountains of the state became policy, Mr. Yoder and his colleagues have had to deal with questions from some residents who have asked why the powerful animals should be allowed to roam "their" woods.

Some state officials say that the encounters with bears and other wildlife are increasing because habitats are recovering through programs that put large land areas under protection and because man is moving closer to those areas. As one naturalist put it, "Bears don't read zoning ordinances."

"It always intrigues me that people buy a cabin in the woods to get close to nature and then complain when a bear wanders through to check out the garbage," says Mr. Yoder. "People should be able to acknowledge the fact that the bear is there because they've moved to a place pristine enough to support wildlife."

Richard Skipper has no doubt that Maryland's natural regions are again capable of supporting the wildlife once decimated by man. His confirmation came in a face-off with a 195-pound cougar.

Mr. Skipper, a professional surveyor with an Oakland-based engineering firm, says the image of the huge cat's face less than 50 feet away is forever burned into his brain.

"I was completely astonished. It began when dogs started barking. I was worried they were after some of our sheep so I followed them. That's when a mountain lion came heading right at me. Behind him were the dogs."

Mr. Skipper followed the sounds of the animals on their chase through the woods. He found one of the dogs lying wounded near a pile of slab wood. A trail of blood dribbled into the woods. "I followed the blood. That's when I saw the cougar again. It had walked into some grapevines and then disappeared."

Tales of big cats in the hills of Western Maryland have been circulating for years. Theories on how they may have come back to Maryland range from escaped pets to a natural migration from other states.

While no cougar bodies have been offered for proof, one local resident has a home video of what appears to be a quick glimpse of a big cat.

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Three counties east, the natural environment in Frederick County's community of Lake Linganore is nurturing a man/nature controversy that has exploded onto regional television screens and the front pages of national publications.

The centerpiece of the controversy is the roof of Joseph Rezash's new home and its appeal to a growing flock of vultures. "My wife and I moved out here to be closer to nature. But we never expected to have vultures attack our roof and cause $6,000 worth of damage," says Mr. Rezash.

The Rezashes aren't the only ones surprised that vultures would make a pastime out of destroying the tiles on his roof with their razor-sharp beaks. His insurance company also finds it difficult to deal with.

"I was told that this kind of thing isn't generally covered by homeowners' insurance. So we had to take precautions." Pointing to the roof which sprouts rows of small metallic spikes, he explains, "Those things are supposed to make it uncomfortable. So far it seems to be working."

What may or may not be working are attempts at keeping the vultures off the man-made beach which they seem to enjoy using in the way a cat uses a litter box.

"We're afraid of what this means for the little kids who put sand in their mouths. We don't know what kind of illnesses they could come down with," says Laura Nisonger, president of the local homeowners' association.

To help protect Mr. Rezash's roof and the beach, and to keep vulture wastes off of boats, the Lake Linganore Association began shooting fireworks into the trees where the vultures roost. While no one is claiming the effort to free the area of vultures is completely successful, most agree it does keep the birds from congregating for very long in one spot.

But not all Lake Linganore residents agree with the philosophy behind the use of fireworks.

"I find the noise program much more horrendous than anything )) the vultures have ever done," says Richard Bright, a homeowner in the Lake Linganore development. "We're doing the same thing to the vultures that we did to the Indians. Why should we try to run them out of here? They were here first. I love watching them fly. Nothing soars through the skies like a vulture."

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Punctuating Maryland's night sky with its eerie howl, is an uninvited new player in the state's wildlife scene.

The coyote has taken up residence and, if its numbers continue to increase, both the region's diverse wildlife and its human population may be in for unsettling experiences.

The red fox is often the first casualty wherever the coyote decides to call home. And sightings of coyotes -- which can leap as far as 14 feet and -- in bursts of speed up to 40 miles an hour -- have been on the increase.

In late 1992, two female coyotes were found dead near Friendsville, in Garrett County. Among numerous sightings reported was one in Carroll County's Linwood area.

And while dozens of similar reports reflect a possibility that their numbers are increasing, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get a handle on their numbers.

While the sightings can elicit fears among the state's citizenry, the reality is that the coyote is more of a potential threat to livestock and pets than to people. In fact, there have been no cases of Marylanders being attacked by coyotes, bears or cougars in recent times.

DNR officials say that when confronted with a wild animal, one should keep in mind that it is not a pet, and that treating the creature with the respect it deserves is the best way to ensure the same courtesy in return.

"We tell people not to approach wild animals. And we also advise them not to panic. Just leave them alone. They just want to go about their lives just like the people they happen to meet. And they'd rather not meet people at all," says DNR's Mr. Yoder.

Advice also includes the maxim of not leaving garbage or food anywhere wildlife may be attracted to it.

"Living up here in Garrett County, you learn that the quickest way for wild animals to lose their fear of humans is by leaving something around for them to eat. That invites possible confrontations," says Ms. Frantz.

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The most brutal confrontation between man and wildlife occurs 2,000 times a year and sometimes with serious consequences to both the state's burgeoning deer population and the vehicles with which they collide.

Dr. Torrey C. Brown, the DNR secretary, estimates deer numbers within the state's 23 counties between 180,000 and 200,000.

"That's a pretty incredible number when you realize that in the 1930s there were practically no deer in the state. They were decimated," he says.

The return of deer in numbers that make them a pastime to both nature lovers and to hunters, as well as a danger to the state's drivers, is credited to a rise in acreage devoted to modern farming practices as well as forest and game management programs.

And despite the occasional reports of cougar in the Western portions of the state, the deer have few other predators to keep their numbers in check.

But the confrontations with nature that worry Dr. Brown the most are less dramatic than occasional scares from a black bear or from the nuisance caused by vultures gone awry. It has more to do with the way people use the land when they decide to build a new nest for themselves.

Fifteen years ago, every time a house went up in Maryland it required .3 acres of land. Now each house is using 1.7 acres. Historically, the practice was to locate a new house in the trees. Now the tendency is often to cut all the trees down and put new ones back in.

"That's really bad news both in practice and in philosophy. Man has to learn that he is a part of nature and has to fit into it. Ultimately, if he destroys it, he destroys himself," says Dr. Brown.

Glenn Tolbert created the program "Outdoors Maryland" for Maryland Public Television.

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