As the state's first black bear season in 52 years moves closer to its scheduled fall starting date, a new poll indicates that two-thirds of Maryland residents favor hunting as a way to control the bruin population.
But animal rights groups called the poll a "sham" yesterday and vowed to stop the hunt, even going to court, if necessary.
The survey of 831 people, released yesterday by the Department of Natural Resources was requested by a task force, appointed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, which recommended a limited hunt.
Support for bear hunting was even stronger in Western Maryland -- where the vast majority of the animals live -- with 78 percent of respondents in favor of a season.
The results were hailed by state wildlife managers, who say hunting is needed to slow the growth of the bear population, estimated at 266 to 437 animals, and to reduce confrontations with farmers and homeowners.
"This wasn't a survey of people who hunt. This wasn't a survey of people who oppose hunting. This is a segment of the population that sits right on the fence," said Paul Peditto, director of the DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service.
Animal rights groups disagreed.
"This was not by any means an independent survey," said Michael Markarian, president of the Silver Spring-based Fund for Animals. "The way the question was phrased was incredibly misleading. It used the strategy of first the answer, then the question."
Markarian said a rally against the hunt will be held at the governor's mansion July 24.
"We are starting to feel this as an imminent threat," he said. "We will do whatever it takes to protect the bear population from a trophy hunt. Our attorneys are looking into our options."
The poll was conducted last month by Virginia-based Responsive Management Inc., which specializes in natural resources issues and frequently works with fish and game agencies. The survey has an error rate of 3.4 percentage points.
Yesterday was the last day for public comment on the proposed 10-year bear management plan. A legislative review committee will study comments and the proposed regulations and either recommend that DNR move forward or scrap its plan.
Wildlife managers are proposing to cull 30 bears, or 8 percent, from the population with hunters chosen by lottery. The two-part season would take place Oct. 25-30 and Dec. 6-11 in Garrett County and the portion of Allegany County west of Cumberland.
Surrounding states have limited hunts, and New Jersey game commissioners lifted a 32-year ban last year and are scheduled to vote July 20 on authorizing this year's season.
Opponents say Maryland came dangerously close to killing all of its bears in the 1950s and the population is too small to justify a season.
Markarian noted that 500 people responded last year to a request for comments by the Black Bear Task Force, with hunting foes outnumbering proponents by a 5-1 margin.
But Peditto said a number of factors prove the need for a bear hunt. The number of bear-vehicle collisions has risen sharply, from five in 1993 to 38 last year. The state has about 27 bears per 100 square miles in Western Maryland -- equal to or exceeding surrounding states' numbers and more than double the estimate of 13 years ago.
Still, he said, he expects the issue will not be decided by lawmakers or wildlife managers.
"I think it's likely that we'll see a legal challenge in some form," he said.