OAKLAND - A confession: At this year's black bear hunt, I am rooting for the bear.
Not every bear. Just one. With each black bear brought to the check station at Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area, I hold my breath. Will the animal being weighed and inspected by state biologists be the one I held in my arms a little more than two years ago?
So far, the bear known to the state as 472C4E7628, most likely a resident of Allegany County, has escaped hunters.
The male bear must weigh about 200 pounds now, but when I saw him in April 2006, he and his three tiny den mates were nestled around their 238-pound mother, who was taking a nap induced by two tranquilizer darts.
Department of Natural Resources biologists and veterinarians charged with managing the state's 600-plus bears placed a microchip under the skin between the shoulders of each cub. Mama Bear was already wearing a radio collar, which made finding the family easy.
Everyone hustled to carry out his assigned tasks, partly to reduce stress on the little ones and partly to reduce the stress on all of us, should mom awaken and register her displeasure. Each bruin got a health check, and mom received a shot of penicillin.
A cub was handed to me. Only slightly larger than a house cat, it showed no fear and its well-developed claws didn't dig into my shoulder as the syringe delivered microchip 472C4E7628. Its warm, moist breath puffed on my neck. Its cool nose brushed my earlobe.
You don't forget an encounter like that.
The cubs were tucked around Mama Bear, and we hiked out of the woods. I hoped to never see them again.
But lots of people are seeing bears these days. Once endangered in Maryland, they are thriving and moving east as development booms in their longtime habitat in Garrett and Allegany counties. The radio collars and microchips give biologists a better head count and help plot the bears' eastward progress.
This year, there have been confirmed sightings in 14 counties. A 360-pound male wandered down from Pennsylvania and killed livestock in Frederick County before it was killed. A bear was captured near Arbutus in August, and another is roaming the Eastern Shore right now.
So here I am, an outdoorswoman who embraces hunting - from deer to geese to bears - rooting for bear 472C4E7628 to survive its second hunting season.
Odds favor the bear, given the location of its home territory, says Harry Spiker, DNR's head bear guy. But as someone who has made his life's work keeping bears healthy while also serving as point man for the hunt, Spiker understands my feelings.
"There's no conflict with respecting a critter but also supporting hunting as a management tool," he counsels.
As long as humans take away wildlife habitat to build industrial parks, shopping centers and summer homes, they must assume responsibility for making sure Maryland has the right number of animals for the amount of remaining woods. To do otherwise is irresponsible, he says.
So while my head says, "Go hunters," my heart says, "Lay low, 472C4E7628."