Some 200 animal activists converged on the governor's mansion in Annapolis yesterday to protest a proposal for the state's first black bear hunt in 51 years.
"Trying to solve bear problems by hunting is like trying to stop crime by shooting into a crowded room," said Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals, a sponsor of the protest "It simply has no effect."
The demonstrators - including one who drew laughs in a bear costume - came from as far away as New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Pointing to an increasing bear population in Western Maryland and a growing number of conflicts with humans, the state Department of Natural Resources and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have approved a hunt Oct. 25-30 in an area west of Cumberland.
Although 200 bear-hunting permits have been issued, the hunt will end after 30 bears have been killed. If that quota is not filled during the first week, another week will be designated for hunting in December.
A half-century ago, bears in Maryland were all but extinct, and the state banned hunting them. Today, between 266 and 437 black bears are living in the state, with Garrett County having the highest population density, according to a 2000 DNR survey.
Opponents say that isn't enough to warrant a hunt. "It's a very small population," said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of the Humane Society, co-sponsor of the rally. "It's manageable from a damage-control perspective."
The protesters said that more research is needed before bear hunting is allowed.
"It took too long to get them here," said William Howard, 82, of Reisterstown, who attended the rally with his daughter. He said he has seen the state's largest mammals in the woods in Garrett County and described them as "beautiful animals."
Florence Iannantuano left her West Milford, N.J., home at 5:30 a.m. yesterday to make it to the rally. She said a recent hunt in her state had failed to stop its bear problems.
"Killing the animals is not addressing the human garbage issues," said Iannantuano, who said that she saw a bear pawing through her neighbor's trash this year.
A majority of Marylanders favor regulated hunting as a means of controlling the bear population - but only if it doesn't endanger the species here - according to an independently conducted survey funded by the DNR.
The state's bear population has grown large enough to warrant a hunt this year, said Steve Huettner, president of the Maryland Sportsmen's Association.
"If the numbers are there to support a hunt, as limited as it is, there's no reason we shouldn't have one," he said.
Huettner, who said he wants a permit himself, argued that the number of bears killed will be lower than the 38 bears that DNR records say were killed by cars and trucks last year.
A DNR spokeswoman declined to comment on the rally. A spokesman for Ehrlich, whose outdoor birthday party at the mansion for his 5-year-old son, Drew, was interrupted by the protesters' chanting, also declined to comment.
Demonstrators put on a spirited show, cheering as cars sped by with drivers beeping horns. The group, which included people in wheelchairs and infants in strollers, faced the mansion and chanted "Governor Ehrlich, aren't you willing? Take a stand and stop the killing!"
People who carried signs that read "Bears are Made by God" and "Preserve Bear Family Values" listened as animal-rights organization speakers talked about ways that humans and bears can coexist. On the side of the stage, which was flanked by a bear rug, a costumed black bear waved to the crowd.
Last week, the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, asked DNR officials to delay the hunt until it can hold a hearing on the issue, but the agency is not required to do so.