Black bear question yields gray area

So, which is it? Are Marylanders overwhelmingly repulsed by the thought of hunters shooting black bears or do we think hunting is a legitimate way to keep the critter population under control?

It depends, I guess, on who's doing the asking and who's doing the answering.


Days ago, the Department of Natural Resources released a poll of 831 residents indicating that 65 percent approve of a bear season as a management tool. The approval rating rises to 78 percent of respondents who live in "Bear Country," Maryland's two westernmost counties, where most of the animals roam.

Those figures fly in the face of last year's public opinion gathered by the Black Bear Task Force, which found that of the 500 residents who sent in comments, sentiment ran 5-1 against bear hunting.


Because we live in the age of instant and constant polling, where every twitch is analyzed and elected officials still must approve the season, these surveys may actually carry some weight.

Naturally, DNR officials are pleased with the outcome of the most recent poll. Anti-hunting forces prefer last year's model. Each side thinks the other survey is flawed.

Animal rights activists argue that the poll conducted for DNR used a weasel-worded, misleading question. Pro-hunting groups say the PETA-types stuffed the ballot box last year.

When asked about skewing the task force results, Fund for Animals president Michael Markarian laughs. "We alerted our members that they had an opportunity to comment," he said. "Hunters had the same opportunity, and they chose not to."

Markarian says the firm conducting this year's survey, Virginia-based Responsive Management Inc., has made a "cottage industry" out of providing self-serving polls for pro-hunting groups.

"The question was biased," he says.

Here is this year's question. You be the judge: "Do you support or oppose regulated hunting as a way to control black bear populations in Maryland?"

To me, it sounds pretty straightforward. To Markarian, however, it's as loaded as a 12-gauge shotgun at the opening of deer season.


"If you had asked the question, 'The Department of Natural Resources estimates there are only 266 to 437 bears in the entire state of Maryland. Do you support killing 30 of these bears for trophies or bearskin rugs?' I think the answer would have been much different," he said.

Oh, that's much better. Markarian's version reminds me of what my mother used to ask as she handed me my weekly allowance: "Are you going to save it for college or spend it on those ridiculous records?"

"Can't hear you over the music, Mom. What was the question?"

Of course, one has to wonder why either side would be getting its innards in an uproar over a poll in which 84 percent of the respondents admitted they know little or nothing about black bears. But that's another matter.

All you have to remember is this: Poll numbers exist to be fiddled with and interpreted.

Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Ye Olde Outdoors Writer slaved away at a small radio station whose feeble signal barely reached the city limits.


There were four stations in the market. A progressive rocker (the album version of "Light My Fire"), a Top 40 station (the 3-minute version of "Light My Fire"), an adult contemporary station ("Light My Fire" by Jose Feliciano) and a beautiful music station (the Living Strings play "Light My Fire").

Twice a year, we all sweated out a "ratings period," when listeners would keep diaries of what they listened to and when, and then the Arbitron company would confirm what we already knew. At my shop, the biannual bad news was we stunk. The good news was we inflicted damage on only 10 listeners.

Yet station managers could always find a category in which we were tops. And that would allow them to take out full-page ads in the newspaper proclaiming our dominance in the marketplace: "No. 1 among listeners ages 80 and up from midnight to 3 a.m."

The bottom line is, what DNR wants is a limited hunt to cull 30 bears from the population. Paul Peditto, who heads the game program, says the two-week season is designed with safeguards.

First, the hunt consists of one week in October and one week in December, which gives biologists a window to assess the impact. Second, hunters are required to check each day with the agency to ensure the quota hasn't been reached. Finally, DNR plans to assign hunters in areas where landowners have had conflicts with bears.

"It took us 50 years of careful management to restore the bear population. Why would we do anything to destroy years of work just to satisfy a small number of hunters?" Peditto asks.


A legislative review committee will have to issue an opinion on the regulations by July 26 and then Gov. Robert Ehrlich must decide whether he supports Maryland's first bear hunt in 52 years.

Ultimately, however, the matter will most likely end up where most of today's public policy is decided - in a courtroom. And judges don't tend to care about ratings or who's tops in their time slot.

My guess is that at some point, a judge or panel of judges will decide that in Maryland, black bears will be No. 1 with a bullet.

By the numbers

In a poll of 831 Maryland residents conducted last month by Responsive Management Inc., with an accuracy rate of plus or minus 3.4 percent, respondents had the following thoughts on black bears:

Knew little or nothing about them - 84 percent


Have never seen one in the wild - 92 percent

Like having them in the state - 77 percent

Think they are rare - 55 percent

Believe the population is at the right level - 44 percent

Believe they are not dangerous to humans - 52 percent

Believe their habitat must be preserved - 93 percent


Of Western Maryland residents, the portion that doesn't mind having them within a half-mile of their home - 53 percent

Of residents of the Baltimore-Washington suburbs, the portion that opposes having them within a half-mile of their home - 59 percent