GORMAN -- State wildlife officials destroyed a black bear in a remote area of Garrett County last week, a rare occurrence but one indicative of increasing problems Western Marylanders are having with a steadily growing bear population.
Such a procedure would have been unheard of until recently, but Maryland's bear population, which had all but disappeared in the 1970s, has rebounded. Wildlife officials estimate that more than 200 bears are roaming the state's mountains.
Tuesday's euthanasia was done after the 187-pound female bear, or sow, was seen killing two sheep at the farm of Lee Shillingburg near this southern Garrett County town, said Patty Manown, a state Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman.
The bear, tracked and treed, was drugged by a tranquilizer dart and later given a lethal injection. It was the third bear state wildlife biologists have put down in three years, all for killing livestock on the same farm.
Two of three cubs with the sow were captured and moved to Savage River State Forest, Ms. Manown said. The third cub could not be captured but was considered mature enough to survive without its mother.
"The cubs were nice and healthy," Ms. Manown said. "Bear biologists believe the cubs are too young at this stage to learn this behavior from sows. She was doing the killing, and they were eating. That's why we felt we could relocate them."
Wildlife officials decided to kill the sow after determining that the animal had been trapped before as a nuisance. The bear had been tagged in 1990 in a study on the migration and population of bears in Western Maryland.
Black bears, normally secretive, solitary creatures, feed on berries and other plant life as well as young birds, newborn mammals and spawning fish.
But in areas frequented by people, bears can become pesky, destructive raiders in quest of "easy" food of all types, including livestock.
"People have to understand that we need to put these kinds of bears down or they will continue to be a nuisance," Ms. Manown said. "In Maryland, we don't have that many places to relocate bears. Surrounding states don't want sheep-killing bears either."
Wildlife officials in neighboring West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia said they rarely destroy bears.
Marauding bears are handled on a case-by-case basis in those states, much as they are in Maryland. However, Pennsylvania and Virginia have larger bear habitats, which provide more space to relocate nuisance bears, officials said.
Western Maryland's bear population has revived to such an extent in recent years that one or two a year are being killed in highway accidents. Campers at state parks from Deep Creek Lake in the west to the Catoctins in the east have reported run-ins with the animals.
Mr. Shillingburg, who operates a 712-acre crop and livestock farm near Potomac-Garrett State Forest, said he has had bear problems for several years. He said the animals destroy his cornfields and his corncrib and regularly dine on his sheep.
"They say there's other animals helping them out, but I don't know about that," he said. "I don't hear any coyotes, and I haven't seen any cougars around here. The bears have really been a nuisance this year. I'm afraid they're going to pick up a child some day."
45 sheep lost since May
Mr. Shillingburg, who said he has about 165 sheep and 35 cattle, estimates that since May 7 he has lost 45 sheep with an estimated replacement value of about $1,800.
He acknowledged that bears may not be responsible for all 45. But he said: "A bear has a special way of killing; they crush the animal's backbone. All the sheep I've found died violent deaths. They didn't die of old age. They were killed by animals of some sort."
He said bears have not bothered the cattle on his farm, which is bordered on the east by the state forest. About Mr. Shillingburg's continued bear problems, Ms. Manown said, "The only theory we have is that [his farm has] excellent bear habitat. We believe there are one or two problem bears teaching their cubs to go after sheep. There also may be some problems with domestic dogs gone wild or coyotes in the area."
She said state officials, working with farmers, hunters, environmentalists and others, are revising the state policy on nuisance bears.
The recommendations are expected to be released later this month. Public information meetings on the proposed revisions are scheduled for next month.