For the first time in 50 years, Maryland will have a hunting season for black bears - a decision that has outraged animal-rights groups and angered some state legislators.
Without fanfare, the Department of Natural Resources yesterday released the specifics of a bear hunt, including the details in a list of dates and bag limits for the 2004-2005 hunting season that were sent to hunting and trapping groups in the state.
State officials have invited those groups to discuss the regulations Feb. 20 over pizza and soda.
Though hunting groups were delighted, the decision was attacked by animal-rights advocates and a group of 16 state lawmakers, who vow to delay or prevent a bear season.
The opponents believed they had more time to marshal their forces against a bear-hunting season. The comment period for the "bear management plan" announced last fall, which is the framework for the hunting regulations, has not yet expired.
"I read that as arrogance on the part of the department," said Del. Barbara Frush, a Prince George's County Democrat. "It sends the message that they don't care what the public thinks. This has been a done deal since the Ehrlich administration took office."
The department does not need legislative approval to have a bear season and enjoys the support of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who said he would rely on its "science-based decision."
Frush and other animal-rights advocates expect a showdown Feb. 18 at a hearing on a bill she sponsored that calls for a six-year moratorium while additional bear population studies are conducted. The same bill was rejected last year by the House Environmental Matters Committee.
The bear management plan was produced by the Black Bear Task Force, formed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening. It was completed last year and posted Jan. 13 on the DNR Web site for comment; the deadline is Feb. 13.
State officials said last summer that a bear season was part of their long-range management plan. They delayed their decision until the task force 10-year report was posted, but not before the public comment period was over.
"That just illustrates clearly that DNR views this as a make-work exercise, a rubber stamp," said Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals.
The Silver Spring-based group used its Web site to drum up opposition to the task force report, resulting in more than 1,800 e-mails to the department. "It is overwhelming that the people of Maryland do not want a bear hunt," Markarian said.
Markarian said he believes that House committee members will view Frush's bill in a different light this year, with a hunt just months away.
"Now, it is more of an imminent threat," he said. "We hope they see that they are the last backstop."
Markarian said the group's lawyers are reviewing options, and if the legislation fails, "We will definitely do anything we can to block the bear hunt."
Hunting groups contend that the decision was made after 12 years of study and public input.
"We are happy that the decision was made on solid scientific evidence," said Steve Huettner, president of the 16,000-member Maryland Sportsmen's Association. "We put our faith in the biologists who are paid to study this and make recommendations."
The lottery-style hunt is to take place one week in October and one week in December in Garrett County and the portion of Allegany County west of Cumberland. The season will end when 30 bears have been killed. Hunters will have to check daily to ensure the limit has not been reached.
Maryland game officials estimate 400 bears live in the zone designated for the hunt and about 100 bears live east of it.
"We don't have any intention of eradicating black bears," said Paul Peditto, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service. "We know how much the public enjoys seeing black bears, but we also know that the population has to be managed."
Hunters will be allowed to use any weapon that is legal in deer hunting season - modern firearms, muzzleloaders, handguns, bows and arrows and crossbows. Hunting dogs are forbidden.
Bear carcasses must be brought to check stations so biologists can collect data.
Peditto said he expects the application fee and the permit to cost less than $30 each.
Western Maryland is surrounded by bear country, and Pennsylvania and West Virginia permit hunting. Last season, Pennsylvania hunters killed 3,000 of the estimated 15,000 bears in the state, and West Virginia hunters shot 1,654 of the state's estimated 12,000 bears.
In December, New Jersey held its first hunt in 33 years. The state issued more than 5,500 permits for the six-day hunt, which resulted in the killing of 328 of the estimated 3,200 bears in the northern and western parts of the state.
Bear incidents in Maryland have increased in recent years. Last year, 27 bears were hit by vehicles in Western Maryland, while bear-related agricultural damage claims increased from $10,000 in 1999 to $36,000 in 2001, Peditto said.
The state has a three-member Black Bear Response Team that answers calls about nuisance bruins, and two Garrett County volunteers respond to landowners' complaints and run bears off with trained dogs.
"They're doing great work, but we're getting to the point where the calls come so frequently that we can't be two places at once," Peditto said. "With deer management, we have proven our ability to craft a hunt to deal with a population. We have the ability to craft an extremely limited, highly monitored hunt for bears."