Bears bedevil Garrett residents: Nuisance: Burgeoning human and ursine populations clash in the Deep Creek Lake region.


McHENRY -- It was 10: 20 Monday night, the end of the Memorial Day weekend at Deep Creek Lake, and the bears were having a banquet on Rock Lodge Road.

The 300-plus-pound mother and her two retriever-sized cubs had arrived on the heels of the just-departed renters of a tourist cabin. Their feast was an unsealed trash can and two plastic bags overstuffed with scraps: steamed crab remains, oyster shells, meat packages, fast food containers and coffee grounds.

After about 20 minutes, the creatures ambled off, leaving behind garbage scattered across the yard and one more reason for Garrett County to be fed up with bears.

Such raids leave residents of Maryland's westernmost county deeply concerned about the increasingly bold, destructive black bears in their midst.

Some call themselves prisoners in their own homes.

Some are angry that their county, with less than 1 percent of the state's voting strength, has to put up with about 90 percent of its bears.

Others resent the small but grating lifestyle changes forced on them by marauding animals.

"Garrett was famous for being a place where you'd roast marshmallows at night. You don't do that any more," lamented Deep Creek area resident Peggy Gosnell.

Only two decades ago, bears were almost nonexistent in this mountainous county of some 30,000 year-round residents. But now it seems that everybody has a bear story.

Some tell of bears tearing up their cars or garages; others recount tales of dogs or livestock killed. Some parents drive children to school because of bear sightings near the bus stop; others won't let kids play in the back yard unsupervised.

The state Department of Natural Resources is resisting pressure to declare a bear-hunting season. But some Garrett residents are threatening to defy state laws that make it a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail and a $1,500 fine to kill a bear in any but a life-threatening situation.

Farmers, many whose crops have been destroyed by bears, are especially miffed that they are not permitted to shoot bears on their own property.

What good is it?

"What value is a bear? Nobody's going to eat much of their meat," growled farmer Ross Sines, who lost about $900 worth of crops to bear damage last year. "Our forefathers worked for a long time to rid this country of things that weren't needed and things that were a problem."

The object of Sines' wrath is Ursus americanus, the American black bear. The largest can weigh 800 pounds, though few in the East get much above 600. Biologists say black bears are primarily vegetarians and scavengers. In the wild they consume skunk cabbage, berries, acorns, roots, fish and insects. Around humans, they are partial to garbage, road kill, beehives and farmers' crops.

Leslie Johnston, the state wildlife technician for Garrett County, said the damage bears can do in a cornfield goes far beyond what they eat.

"They just sit down and they wallow as far as they can reach. If you get a family of bears, they can take out 4 acres of corn," Johnston said.

Inadequate compensation

The farmers' unhappiness is compounded by the inadequacy of the state program to compensate them for bear damage. The program is funded by sales of souvenir bear stamps, which have fallen short of expectations.

Sines, whose farm is bounded on all sides by Garrett State Forest, said he received only 42 cents on the dollar for his crop losses. Now his son, John, who farms the 324 acres with him, says it may be time for "the three-S solution -- shoot, shovel and shut up."

Thousands of bears once inhabited virtually every part of what is now Maryland. But by 1850, hunting and habitat loss had wiped out bears everywhere but in the mountains in the western part of the state.

Maryland held its last legal bear hunt in 1953, and by 1956 the state estimated that only 12 bears remained in the state.

The species began its resurgence around 1980.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, the bears simply walked here from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. But it is an article of faith among many in Garrett that the state played a more active role.

Homer Mellot, a semi-retired farmer who raises beef cattle along the Youghiogheny River, insists that "somebody in Annapolis" got the idea of bringing bears into the state.

"I happen to know some inside information from DNR agents in Pennsylvania that they cooperated with our DNR in bringing them back in here," Mellot said.

Guesswork about numbers

Estimates of how many bears are in Maryland are sketchy. Eric Schwaab, director of forest, wildlife and heritage services for the department, said the last official estimate two years ago was 300 but that there could be 400 to 500 in the state today.

As the number of bears has increased, so has the volume of complaints. Steve Bittner, the state biologist in charge of bear management, said the Natural Resources department fielded 293 bear complaints in 1997, compared with 196 in 1996.

According to Bittner, 40 percent of the complaints come from within a mile of Deep Creek Lake, the center of Garrett's tourism industry and of residential development.

Johnston said the Deep Creek building boom of the past decade has aggravated the tensions between people and bears.

She took a visitor to a development called Monte Vista, where luxury homes share a mountainside with three known bear dens. "This is the best habitat in Garrett County," she said. "Unfortunately, it's where all the people are moving."

Nancy Bernard, who lives in an immaculately kept lakefront home across from the rental property the bears trashed along Rock Lodge Road, said she has had several bear scares.

"People who live here year-round have learned to deal with the trash problems. But the rentals, they don't care," she said.

Indeed, for every clever-bear story, there seems to be a stupid-tourist tale.

Bernard said that one afternoon she saw a tourist throwing food to a bear from his rental home's deck so he could take its picture.

"The majority of our complaints, there's usually someone out there feeding the bears," said Johnston, who noted that it's illegal to do so in Maryland.

There are signs that the state's efforts are having an impact, but some county residents resent being told to change their behavior in their own back yards.

Bear-hunt campaign plank

Among them is Chester Sines, a cousin of Ross Sines who is running for sheriff as a Republican.

"To allow a varmint like a bear to take over and dictate our lifestyle just is not right," said the candidate, who has accused state officials of trying to convince people they are "living in Jellystone Park with Yogi and Boo Boo."

According to Chester Sines, Maryland needs to push bears into the back country by declaring a hunting season, as Pennsylvania and West Virginia do: "What they have that we don't have is skittish bears."

But Schwaab, the state wildlife official, said a hunt is not biologically necessary.

Del. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican, disagrees. He said he is prepared to introduce legislation forcing the department to permit a hunt.

For now, Edwards said, he will wait while state officials examine the possibility of trapping some bears and moving them eastward.

"We're very willing to share them with anybody in the state," said Edwards, suggesting with a poker face that suitable habitat might be found in Fort Meade, Patapsco State Park and the lower Eastern Shore.

Schwaab confirmed that the department would consider relocation but stressed that no bears would be moved without support from the community on the receiving end.

"If they say the people there don't want them, what's that tell the people in Garrett County?" Edwards asked.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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