With a hearing scheduled Wednesday on a bill to block Maryland's first black bear season in 50 years, animal rights activists from across the country have drawn a bull's-eye on the state's hunting community and the agency that regulates the activity.
Baltimore radio listeners are hearing spots featuring an actor from a popular CBS soap opera who urges them to call Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and voice their opposition.
A bear behavior expert from California will help lead an anti-hunting rally in Bethesda tomorrow night, then testify at the legislative hearing.
Thousands of people have e-mailed a Department of Natural Resources comment board to register their disapproval.
"This is our last chance to stop the hunt," said Michael Markarian, president of the Silver Spring-based Fund for Animals. "This is a bellwether for Maryland."
Those who favor a bear hunt are not sitting quietly. The Web site for the Maryland Sportsmen's Association is urging its 20,000 members to contact their legislators. The DNR launched a separate Web site this weekend to disseminate bear facts, while the head of the hunting program is doing interviews with media outlets.
"You don't have to like the fact that hunting has been part of the historical model of wildlife management, but it is," said Paul Peditto, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service. "Right now, it's come down to an emotional argument."
Sportsmen's groups around the country are waiting to see whom Maryland lawmakers back.
"Sadly, we have seen the animal extremists use these types of antics before," said Jim Brown, spokesman for the 40,000-member SCI-First for Hunters. "New Jersey just successfully concluded its first bear hunt in 30 years, and that speaks volumes for the effectiveness of their antics."
The difference between New Jersey and Maryland, say those involved on both sides, is that the Fund for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States are based here.
"This is our back yard," said Karen Allanach of the Gaithersburg-based Humane Society. "We do feel that anything that affects our neighborhood needs to be acted on. We are physically here -- the people, the voices, the faces."
The Humane Society has more than 8 million members, including 172,633 in Maryland.
Wildlife managers feel the pressure.
"We're at ground zero," Peditto said. "This is fertile ground for them, and there's nothing we can do about it."
In the fall, the agency signaled its intent to have a bear season in the fall next year to cull 30 animals from a population estimated at 400-500. The announcement followed a recommendation by the Black Bear Task Force, appointed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, to include a hunt in the 10-year bear management plan.
The DNR released the specifics of the plan this month. A hunt, for which people would obtain permits through a lottery, would take place in Garrett County and Allegany County west of Cumberland for one week in October and one week in December. The hunt would cease when the target number is reached.
Almost immediately, the fund and the Humane Society began drumming up support for a ban through Web sites. Viewers were encouraged to cut and paste a letter to the governor or their state lawmaker and send it to the DNR, which ended its 30-day comment period Friday.
On Friday, WBAL-AM began running a 60-second spot paid for by the fund, featuring Grant Aleksander, a Baltimore native and an actor on Guiding Light.
In it Aleksander said, "There is simply no reason to hunt bears," calling them "timid creatures who generally pose no harm to the public."
Markarian said he believes comments, like those during the tenure of the Black Bear Task Force, ran "overwhelmingly" against a hunt.
"The people of Maryland have spoken, but [Ehrlich] seems to be committed to this hunt. We want him to know it will be a painful decision for him," Markarian said. "People will be outraged and they will remember."
But Peditto said the DNR has generated goodwill and credibility with its management of the white-tailed deer population. The herd of more than 250,000 has been kept in check by more liberal regulations, including a longer season, bigger bag limits and two Sunday hunts.
"Hunting is an efficient, fiscally responsible tool," Peditto said.
Animal rights activists said the bear population isn't large enough to sustain a hunt and that there is no scientific evidence to show that a hunt reduces conflicts between humans and bears.
Peditto said the increasing conflicts and vehicle accidents involving bears indicates that the population is too large and needs thinning. The decision to hold a limited hunt is based on scientific study, he said.
"If we were talking about snakeheads or kudzu or Phragmites, things that people don't like or want, people -- even the animal rights crowd -- would be saying that we're the right scientists for the job," Peditto said. "We're still the right scientists for this job."