Black bear sightings in Baltimore suburbs increase

Less than two weeks after a young black bear was fatally injured by a car on the Beltway near Lutherville, state wildlife officials are tracking another bruin last spotted Wednesday in Cockeysville.

"I suspect this guy dropped down from Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna River," said Harry Spiker, a bear biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "This bear is probably wishing he hadn't come this way."

Although Maryland's black bears aren't known to breed farther east than Frederick County, these springtime sojourns — sometimes more than 100 miles — by young male bears have become annual events. Some have come from Pennsylvania. One made the trip from central New Jersey to Maryland's Eastern Shore in recent years.

And the number of sightings and encounters with suburban residents is climbing.

Eventually, the bears will establish dens and breed in Carroll, Baltimore or Harford counties, Spiker says. "I think it's likely, but not anytime too soon," he said, noting that the absence of females in the region means that day is years away.

The latest sightings began Saturday in Federal Hill in north-central Harford County. That was followed by a call from Freeland in northern Baltimore County, and a third on Sunday from Shiloh Road outside Hampstead in northern Carroll County.

On Tuesday, the bear was sighted near Wheeler Lane and Belfast Road in Sparks. And on Wednesday, the DNR took another report from Cockeysville — Spiker didn't have the exact location.

This bear does not seem to be habituating to people and their garbage, Spiker said. The bear is "just wandering around, trying to find its way. We'd get a lot more calls if he were seeking out humans for food."

This season's first suburban bear sightings began late last month. The 100-pound, 5-foot yearling scrounged meals from Eve Ferguson's trash cans in Westminster on May 25.

"The garbage was in a locked can," she said. "But he didn't seem to have any trouble getting the lid off. You can see the marks where the claws went right through."

For at least 20 minutes, while Ferguson and her two grandchildren watched and snapped pictures from inside the house, the bear pulled plastic bags from the can, snacked on whatever he found appealing, then dragged the last bag into the woods.

But his culinary adventure ended badly. After a daylight raid on a bird feeder in Owings Mills, he took a dive into a garbage bin outside the Valley Inn restaurant on Falls Road near the Beltway on May 29. He was chased from there and ran into Beltway traffic near Interstate 83, where he was struck by a car and badly injured. DNR officials later found and euthanized him.

"He was really pretty, with a shiny black coat. You could tell he was healthy. … I was really saddened to hear what had happened to him," said Ferguson, 68. "I was hoping he would work his way back, or that somebody would catch him and put him in a protected area."

For now, Maryland's breeding population of black bears is limited to four western counties: Garrett, Allegany, Washington and Frederick. Eastern Allegany was on the fringe of bear territory in the 1980s, but that frontier has moved 50 miles east to western Frederick County.

Spiker said the wandering males face difficult obstacles as they try to establish new breeding territory farther east. The toughest one is the absence of female bears, who control the pace of expansion. They just don't have the males' wanderlust.

"Females have a much smaller home range," just 13 square miles in Maryland, Spiker said. "When females disperse, they move right next door, often overlapping their natal home range. Females are very forgiving of other females in their home range."

Not so for males. When they're a little over a year old, they are pushed out to seek their fortunes. That means getting away from established adult males, who defend home territories that typically encompass 25 to 50 square miles.

Residents of the Baltimore and Washington suburbs have grown accustomed to springtime reports of young male bears on the move.

In June 2003, there were bear reports from Montgomery County homeowners, followed by more in Manchester in Carroll County.

In August 2008, authorities tracked a 100-pound bear from reports phoned in from St. Mary's, Calvert and Anne Arundel counties. They finally tranquilized and captured him in Arbutus.

In September 2008, the Department of Natural Resources fielded nearly 60 calls from startled residents of Kent, Talbot and Queen Anne's counties as a young bear wandered the Eastern Shore. It was trapped, and ear tags revealed that he had been caught previously in Trenton, N.J. Wildlife officials had released him in the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area in east-central New Jersey — 110 miles from where he was later trapped in Maryland.

"Bears have been documented moving 150 miles to establish territory," Spiker said. With that kind of movement, it's no surprise that the number of encounters with residents of Baltimore's suburbs is rising.

Ferguson, whose family has 65 acres of cleared and wooded land near Westminster, has seen coyotes, foxes, deer and pheasants. "But this was the first time we've seen a bear." And it gives her pause now. "When we walk the dogs, we look around. And if the animals get upset, I bring them inside."

Reports of Maryland bear sightings (outside Garrett County) have increased from 82 in 1998 to 121 in 2009, Spiker said. The number of reports outside the four counties where bears breed has also gone up, from six in 1998 to 86 in 2008.

As many as 72 of those 2008 reports can probably be accounted for by multiple sightings of just two bears — the one captured in Arbutus and the New Jersey bear caught on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

But the numbers do reflect the increasing frequency of bear-human encounters in the suburbs, occasions that can delight, or imperil, all concerned. And if (or when) bears become established in Baltimore's suburban counties, those encounters would surely increase.

But it will likely be a few years before the bears become permanent neighbors. The Pennsylvania counties that adjoin Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties have the lowest bear densities in that state. And female bears breeding in Frederick County will be slow to find dens farther east.

"I think that [Maryland] Route 15 really acts as a major barrier," Spiker said. "We get very few [Frederick County] sightings east of Route 15."

Smaller roads don't pose the same sort of obstacle. Forty-three bears were struck and killed on Maryland roads in 2009, compared with the 68 shot by licensed hunters the same year.

For now, the young males, if they survive their rambles into the suburbs, typically will find their way back to their own kind.

"A bear may decide to stick around if he's getting well fed," Spiker said. "But eventually, his hormones kick in, and he will get up and move" in search of a female.

The message from the DNR is to give all bears respect and distance, but no food.

"Treat them like you would a strange dog," Spiker said. "Respect them, give them some space, and they will move on. If you have bird feeders and trash available to them, pull those in so they don't get comfortable and hang around.

"Typically, they'll find their own way out of trouble," he said.

Residents who see a bear should call the Department of Natural Resources 800-628-9944.

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