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Molasses, fur the tools for accurate bear census in Md.


DEEP CREEK LAKE - One tuft of fur at a time, Harry Spiker is getting to know Maryland's bears.

At 240 wooded sites in Allegany and Garrett counties, the state wildlife biologist invites bears in for a snack, hoping they will leave a DNA calling card when they amble away.

Each site, about the size of the average office workstation, has a stump at its center - a dinner dish to sop up a half-gallon of molasses - with a single strand of barbed wire strung knee-high at the perimeter.

Bears visit the stump for a lick and a chew. Coming or going, there's a good chance they'll snag some fur on a barb. To a wildlife laboratory technician, those strands of hair are as unique to a bear as a fingerprint is to a human, allowing scientists to determine the size and gender balance of the state's bruin population.

Spiker's monthlong project, which ends this week, is considered vital as wildlife managers try to balance the number of bears against diminishing habitat.

"All of this around the lake is the best bear habitat in the state," Spiker says as he stands near brand-new, high-end condominiums, with more under construction on the opposite shoreline. "It also happens to be prime real estate for humans, too."

Spiker and motorists recently watched a 250-pound bear sprint across a road and down a hill, and then wriggle under a lakefront vacation home. Spiker was able to scare the bear back into the woods, but not before the bear scared the home's inhabitants.

Last year, state officials lifted a 52-year moratorium on bear hunting after the population rebounded from 12 animals to an estimated 500. Twenty bears were shot on the season's first day, prompting state officials to cancel the remainder of the two-week hunt to avoid exceeding the 30-bear quota.

This year, the Department of Natural Resources will conduct another lottery-style hunt to kill 40 to 55 bears. The season will be Oct. 24-29 and Dec. 5-10.

Spiker, the state's black bear expert, explains all this as he drives down a dirt road toward one of the survey sites.

"We did our first study in 2000 ... and it was considered cutting-edge. Now it's the standard method for determining the bear population," he says.

Jumping from his white pickup truck with the peeling DNR logo, Spiker grabs his clipboard and a yellow half-gallon container filled with molasses. "Let's go find us some hair," he says enthusiastically.

A short hike through the woods brings him to one of his sampling stations. He dumps the molasses over the stump, the deep glug-glug of the sticky black substance a rhythmic counterpoint to the sounds of chirping finches and rustling leaves. While the jug drains, propped up against the stump, he pulls out a white envelope and begins inspecting each barb for traces of fur.

"I swear sometimes they use this as a back scratcher," says Spiker, laughing as he works.

Samples are placed in separate envelopes and marked with the date and location. Spiker then burns off remaining particles with a lighter and moves on.

"You get to wondering - was it one bear or two bears?" he says as he carefully plucks strands of black fuzz from two neighboring barbs. "We'll let the lab determine that."

The U.S. Geological Survey lab in West Virginia needs just a single hair to do its DNA study. It can eliminate duplicate samples from the same bruin and tell whether the bear is male or female, an important factor as wildlife managers try to keep the population in balance.

Testing in 2000 identified 92 bears that visited a survey site. Scientists plugged that number into a formula used throughout North America to arrive at Maryland's population estimate. This year's results should be available early next year.

Paul Peditto, the DNR's wildlife and heritage director, says that if the study indicates the bear population is declining, the hunt will be altered or eliminated.

"Very quickly, we would adjust," he says. "But all of our studies suggest that this is a bear population that continues to grow."

A study last winter found seven hibernating sows with a total of 22 cubs, he says.

"If you are worried about last year's harvest taking too many animals, those sows produced more bears than were taken in the hunt," he says.

This year's survey is more comprehensive than the 2000 version. The sampling includes all of Allegany County instead of just the western half, where bear hunting was allowed. Instead of each sampling station being inside a 12-square-mile grid, each grid is four square miles.

The original survey was based on female bears having a territory - or home range - of 13 square miles. "But as the [bear] population increases, the home range has shrunk," Spiker says. "This way, there ought to be a station within every bear's home range. None of them should be outside a grid."

Because bears, like humans, cling to the same commuting habits, Spiker chose stumps the way Wawa selects convenience store locations.

"They tend to follow the same pattern to the point that they'll step in the same footprints. It feels safer to them," he says.

Each of the stations has been inspected once a week over the past month. Including the cost of the lab tests and paying part-time employees to collect the samples, the population survey will cost nearly $100,000, of which $2,000 is the cost of molasses.

Why molasses and not day-old doughnuts?

"If we had food, one bear would come in and take it and that would be the end of the station's effectiveness until we re-baited it," Spiker says as he caps a jug and prepares to move on. "The molasses has a little more staying power."

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