Activists urge House panel to stop Oct. black bear hunt

Several dozen animal-rights supporters asked a House committee yesterday to block Maryland's first black bear hunt in 50 years this fall, saying there are not enough animals or human conflicts to justify killing them.

A bill filed by Del. Barbara Frush, a Prince George's County Democrat, would prohibit a hunt until 2010 and require state game officials to conduct a more detailed population study.

An identical bill was rejected last year by the House Environmental Matters Committee, but animal-rights activists say the scheduled October hunt makes the matter more urgent.

Bear hunting was banned a half-century ago after the state population was reduced to about 12 animals. Recent surveys indicate that the black bear population is less than 500, with all but about 100 bears living west of Cumberland in Allegany County.

"There are fewer black bears in Western Maryland than pandas in China. There are fewer black bears in Western Maryland than grizzlies in Montana," said Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. "This is not an issue of science. This is an issue of tolerance. If you live in that area, you should expect to see wildlife."

But state Department of Natural Resources biologists said the number of conflicts between bears and humans is increasing, as is the number of vehicle collisions with bears. Reducing the population by 30 animals through a limited hunt would give the remaining bears more territory to roam, they said.

Steve Searles, who was hired by the California town of Mammoth Lakes to chase bears away from civilization, testified that "aversive conditioning," using pepper spray, noisemakers and rubber bullets, works better than hunting.

"Bears learn quickly," said Searles, an avid hunter who was flown in for the hearing by the Humane Society and the Fund for Animals. "A dead bear, what's he learned?"

Paul Peditto, director of the DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service, told state lawmakers that the decision to schedule the hunt followed recommendations by two state task forces and is supported by scientific data.

"We're the right agency for the job - and have been - for 50 years," said Peditto. "We're still the right agency."