Joy, wonder over return of black bear


I heard a crash in the trees along the Youghiogheny River in Garrett County last week. I was standing in the river, fishing with a buddy. It had been a pretty day, and now the sun was starting to disappear behind some fir trees, and I heard heavy thrashing coming from the woods. I doubted it was another human being; a human being would likely stay on the trail that runs along the Youghiogheny and not make all that racket. It wasn't a squirrel; I know the sound of a squirrel banging through branches and brush, and that wasn't a squirrel. I figured it was a deer. I didn't think "bear" until I read my own newspaper the very next morning, back in Baltimore.

We had a front-page story May 31 that pretty much declared the black bear a new menace to human existence in Western Maryland.

I don't live near Deep Creek Lake and haven't had the bear-in-the-trash experience some of the folks in and around the town of McHenry describe. Farmers complain about losing parts of crops to black bears; homeowners around the lake express fear about encounters with them.

Because the reappearance of the black bear in reforested Garrett County is something relatively new, you'd expect to hear this sort of thing. Predictably, some of the news stories and commentary have been alarmist in tone; some could have been written by Peter Benchley.

I understand the concern and the fears. I know how we humans are; we don't like to be inconvenienced. When there's a nuisance on the back porch, we like to get a can of Raid and spray it away, and there's no Raid for bears -- yet. I appreciate the farmer's distress at losing some corn, though it appears that distress is salved with some compensation by the state. I am aware that there is growing support for a Western Maryland bear hunt to curtail this new menace to civilization.

So, that said, I'd just like to add something about the black bear's return: I think it's pretty damn neat.

Long decades after the black bear had been hunted or timbered out of this state -- Garrett County had virtually no trees by 1915 -- they are back; they've found suitable habitat here again, just as they have in Pennsylvania and 30 other states. The local reaction to this renaissance? Fear and anger, instead of joy and wonder.

The story of the bear follows a great ecological story in the Eastern United States -- the reforestation of land that had been colonized, timbered and farmed to support the first waves of American settlers and the burst of industrialization that followed. As the American frontier expanded and edged to the West, the need to clear land in the East eventually diminished. This took decades, of course, but it happened, starting in New England and the Northeast, and spreading down the coast through the Mid-Atlantic. Farmers moved west, and the Industrial Revolution pulled more humanity to the already crowded cities. Only in the last part of this century, after World War II, did the trend change dramatically, with American families moving to suburbs to reclaim open spaces -- and, in some cases, reforested spaces -- to create new communities or expand old ones. Highways, modern housing and office-park development have put a huge dent in reforestation, but it has not negated it. Bill McKibben, the fine chronicler of environmental trends who has been knocked by some as a doomsayer, notes this green recovery with enthusiasm and believes it's the primary reason we're seeing wildlife in places they have not been seen for years.

Thus, the bears of Western Maryland. The woods are back, so are some of its natural inhabitants.

Now some of the people who live in that exquisite part of the state think we should kill a few to keep their population down.

That might have to happen some day.

But for now, I think we should savor this. The return of the bear is significant, and not just for Garrett County. It means that, despite a couple of centuries of exploitative land practices, we've regained a piece of that world only Native Americans and the first few generations of settlers knew.

Maybe, instead of looking for a quick-fix with a shotgun, people who have homes in Garrett ought to learn to live with the black bear. Other people in other parts of the country have. (My mother-in-law can do it in Pennsylvania, my sister can do it in New Hampshire, so can you.) Learn about the bear, what you can do to avoid encounters, what to do when you have one.

And consider this, from the research of Steven P. French, M.D., co-director of the Yellowstone Grizzly Foundation and a specialist in emergency medicine: "Between 1960 and 1980, more than 500 people were injured [in the United States] by black bears, but at least 90 percent of these [were] minor scratches or bites inflicted by bears that were either conditioned to human foods or habituated to human presence. Injuries as a result of close encounters are extremely rare and, in contrast to grizzly/brown bears, female black bears display very little aggression in defense of their young and very rarely cause injury. . . . In the majority of cases of black bear aggression, the bears were run off relatively easily by aggressive actions by the victim and/or their companions."

So bang a few pots and pans. It's not as grizzly a picture as it may seem.

I can hear the folks out along Sang Run, in Accident, McHenry, The Cove and Grantsville now: Easy for that city slicker to say how wonderful and all the black bears are; he doesn't have to live with them.

True. But, listen, folks, if you didn't consider the eventuality -- or hope for the possibility -- of living near black bears, maybe you shouldn't have moved out there. Lifelong Garrett Countians probably are handling this new development better than the transplants. What did the newcomers think Garrett was? Columbia with trees and Mennonites? It's the least populated, most densely forested county in Maryland. Agriculture, lumbering and some mining still go on out there. You could look it up.

I like to visit Garrett, and not because of Deep Creek Lake -- in spite of it. I like the parklands, the state forest, the rivers, the trout fishing, the wildlife (even the timber rattler I stepped over two springs ago). That's what draws me there. I'll keep my ears open for a black bear and, if I see one, I'll respect it, and savor every minute of it.

Pub Date: 6/08/98

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