A year after the annual Maryland black bear hunt was extended to a sixth day and the quota for the number of bears taken was not reached — both firsts since the hunt was brought back in 2004, after a 51-year absence — the schedule and some regulations for this year's hunt have changed.
According to Harry Spiker, a bear biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, this year's hunt will have a four-day limit and no quota. The hunt is scheduled to begin Monday and run through Thursday.
"It seemed like a good time, with 10 years of data under our belt, to loosen the reins a little bit, if you will, and provide for a more pleasant experience for the hunters," Spiker, who's responsible for managing the hunt, said recently. "Really, the impetus behind [the changes] is to make it more convenient for the hunters."
In the past, Spiker said, hunters would call in every night to see whether the quota had been reached before deciding whether to go out into the woods the next day. While a decade of data showed that the quota typically was reached during the fourth day, last year's hunt was an anomaly.
Ninety-four bears were taken — one shy of a 95-bear quota that could have reached 130 — even after two days were addedthe four the hunt typically has needed. Spiker said the low total was attributable to cold and wet weather, which "got the hunters out of the woods" more quickly than ideal conditions for the hunt.
The four-day schedule is more in line with what the DNR uses for other hunts, such as deer and squirrel, Spiker said.
The 450 permits handed out this year are 70 more than last year's total, the result of some hunters' choosing not to hunt after receiving permits in the lottery. In the past, Spiker said, between 15 and 20 alternates were selected every year.
With the system of alternates essentially eliminated, Spiker said the DNR still can control the hunt's yield by increasing or decreasing the number of permits handed out each year. Spiker added that the bear population is still growing, most rapidly in Allegany County but also in Garrett, Washington and Frederick counties.
"There's no doubt the population is increasing," Spiker said.
Among the data used to determine the presence of black bears, some derives from an exercise in which sardines are hung from trees at subset stations in areas typically populated by black bears. Several hundred of these stations are used throughout the state, mostly in Western Maryland.
Spiker joked that "when the sardine trees bloom" every year, researchers check the stations after about eight days to determine the presence of bears.
Mortality surveys, the number of bears picked up as roadkill, the number of nuisance bear sightings reported and the number of cubs tagged by the state are also used to determine the bear population.
There are some other changes in the way the bear hunt will be conducted this week.
Until this year, hunters had to maintain visual contact with their subpermittees. Starting this year, hunters on the same permit do not have to see each other. "If there are two hunters on a permit, they can now use two different sides over a ridge and don't have to make visual contact," Spiker said. Based on the types of accidents reported during deer hunts, hunt enforcement officials said was no indication that not maintaining visual contact could become a safety issue.
Previously, one of the two subpermitees had to be a landowner. The requirement often kept hunters from using the second subpermit, Spiker said, and led to family squabbles about whom the primary permittee would bring.
"If you have two children, you can now take both children, or you can take your wife and child," Spiker said.
There is still a limit of one bear taken per permit.
"These are the finer nuances of the hunt, but they make a big difference if you're hunting," Spiker said.
Spiker doesn't think the changes will change the essence of the hunt.
"Essentially, we expect a lot of the same, if you will, but it will be a whole lot more convenient for the hunters," he said. "They know how much time to take off from work. I heard from a lot of hunters who took two days off of work, not knowing how long it would be. Now they know how long it will be."