McHENRY -- Somewhere in nature's memory last winter resides, a winter that brought 217 inches of snow here. And now that summer has arrived, biologists are noting that Western Maryland's natural world has made up for spending several months in a deep freeze.
The giant snapping turtles gave the first sign that things were different in the woods and valleys. Local residents spotted an unusually large number of them.
"I'm not sure why more snapping turtles were seen this year," said biologist Ed Thompson, "But it may have something to do with the weather conditions. After that long, harsh winter we had a very wet spring. And maybe there is something in their internal clock that told them that they have to move while they had the chance. It seemed like something was telling them that their time to go and lay eggs had somehow been compressed."
If it was an unusually urgent message coming from the internal clock of the snapping turtle, it was a very old mechanism giving off new signals. The snapping turtle is an ancient creature with individual specimens spotted this year having shells 2 1/2 feet across and larger. The power of their massive jaws is legendary. Scientists don't know how long a snapping turtle can live, but many believe that a healthy specimen left to its wiles can survive at least twice as long as the average biologist.
What is known is that for some reason this spring, large numbers of giant snapping turtles moved nearly in unison through the woods, like tank patrols deployed on a desperate mission to secure quickly the best sandy areas to dig holes and deposit their eggs.
Local residents were alarmed by a larger resident of Maryland's woods which appeared with increasing frequency this summer.
"We've never had so many calls about black bears," said Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Outreach and Technical Services Technician Leslie Johnston. "Since bears left hibernation this spring, we've had 117 people calling about them. That's nearly triple the number from last year," she said.
The urgency of the calls ranges from mere sightings to bears on the porches and even to the mauling of a pet goat. A pager was issued to Johnston so she could respond to the complaints promptly.
"Usually people call 911 and then I get called. Things are getting so busy with the bear situation that the DNR is considering setting up two bear response teams who would be on call 24 hours a day. Right now, though, my partner Terry DeWitt and I are it," she said.
Official DNR policy states that Johnston and DeWitt will consider getting a trap and removing a nuisance bear only after all possible food sources such as garbage or bird feeders have been removed and the bear continues to return. Once caught, the bear is relocated to state property as far away as possible from the place where it was trapped.
Caroline Friend called for help after a 528-pound male black bear climbed onto the porch of her trailer.
"It was dusk and my fiancee and I heard a noise which we thought was his nephew, but when he opened the door, there was this huge bear. He yelled at it to go away and it ran behind a tiny pine tree hiding its face and acting like a kid playing hide-and-seek even though its huge body was hanging out on either side of the tree," she said.
But Friend isn't completely amused by the cozy relationship that some of her neighbors have with the bears. So far, four nuisance bears have been trapped and relocated away from her neighborhood.
"We feel like prisoners in our own home," she said. "We can't have a cookout without being really worried about what drops to the ground or is accidentally left out. We have more and more children moving into this area and we're concerned about what could happen. We've had bears in playhouses and trying to climb onto trampolines. The problem is these bears aren't afraid of people and they are very large and powerful animals."
Friend and some other residents want a hunting season to cut back on the bear population, which officials say is around 300. Residents claim it is much higher.
"We're not considering a hunting season right now," said DNR Game Forest Manager Steve Bittner. "What we're doing is educating people that they have to take some initiative of their own by not having food sources such as dog and cat bowls outside and not leaving trash in the back of pickup trucks for days before it is carried to the dump," he says.
Bittner feels that some of the fears are based on stories about grizzlies, a much more aggressive animal than the normally placid black bear.
"Generally, you can scare a black bear away by clapping and yelling," Bittner says. "The only thing you want to make sure of is not to get between a mother and its cubs. If that happens just make a lot of noise and back off. A black bear really doesn't want to be around you."
While no hunting season is being considered, the legislature has set up a Black Bear Conservation Fund to compensate land owners for damage caused by the animals. Two requests for compensation have been filed under the new legislation, one for a pine on a Christmas tree farm and the other for a destroyed beehive. (The goat was euthanized after the mauling, but its owner was not compensated because it was a pet -- not livestock). Funding comes from a combination of internal DNR money and the upcoming sale of $5 "Bear Appreciation Stamps." The stamps and similarly designed decals are expected to be sold to animal welfare proponents.
Meanwhile, those on the front lines of Maryland's wildlife struggles are gearing up for a lengthy confrontation. Leslie Johnston has a new, lighter-weight bear trap which can be mobilized quicker than the older model. Encounters between bears and people are likely to continue to increase, she said.
"We have more development, we have more rental properties where people come for a weekend and leave bags of garbage sitting outside. And we simply have more and more people pushing bears out of their natural range," she explained.
Until the winter temperatures begin dipping low enough to send the black bear back into hibernation this December, Johnston and her colleagues expect to be busy. Nobody has a clue what the giant snapping turtles will be doing next spring.
Glenn P. Tolbert is a free-lance writer who lives in Western Maryland.
Pub Date: 8/11/96