Bear hunt seeks to stem spread into suburban areas

Last month, a Montgomery County homeowner looked out in her backyard to see a black bear mauling to death a six-point buck. Hikers around the Frederick County reservoir are reporting bear sightings. Twelve counties outside Western Maryland's "bear country" had confirmed reports in 2008.

As the population roars back from near extinction, black bears are moving closer to suburbia.

Maryland's seventh bear hunt begins Monday with the goal of killing 65-90 bruins. Animal rights supporters believe the hunt is unnecessary, but the state says it is determined to control the population — estimated at 550 adult bears in Garrett and Allegany counties — in the hunt area.

"We're seeing a wave moving from west to east and we'd like to slow that wave," says Harry Spiker, the state's chief bear biologist. "I'm probably as comfortable as anybody with a bear, but I don't want eone sitting at my kitchen table."

The Sept. 14 sighting, on Comus Road in Clarksburg, was reported to Montgomery County police just after 7 p.m. by a woman who said she watched a "huge" black bear "take down" a deer, according to department spokeswoman Lucille Baur. The homeowner told police she was worried about the welfare of horses and livestock in the area, located between I-270 and the Frederick County line.

An officer arrived and euthanized the deer. The bear didn't stick around.

Wildlife officials have speculated that the buck might have been sick or injured and the hungry bear took advantage of the situation.

"It's not unusual for the bear to be there," said Natural Resources Police Capt. Lloyd Ingerson. "It's unusual for an attack."

In 2008, a 100-pound bear that wandered around Southern and Central Maryland was finally captured by the Department of Natural Resources in Arbutus and trucked to Western Maryland. That same year, a bear wandered 110 miles from New Jersey to the Eastern Shore and showed up near a school and a supermarket before biologists were able to relocate it to Washington County. An ear tag and a lip tattoo confirmed it came from the Land of Springsteen.

While black bears haven't attacked people, crop damage is commonplace and home invasions have occurred. Lots of folks have photos and videos of bears in search of a good time partying down on decks and patios.

Spiker says bears thrive in Maryland because of good habitat. Sows begin bearing young earlier and have larger litters than in other regions of the country. Seventy percent of cubs survive past their first birthdays.

As a result, density is increasing. In 1991, the number of bears per 100 square miles was a dozen. In 2000, the next census, DNR placed the number of bears at 27.3 per 100 square miles. Five years later, the density was 39.3 bears.

The search for more territory has pushed the bears east and toward the vast watersheds at Liberty, Prettyboy and Loch Raven reservoirs. Spiker worries that Central Marylanders haven't been conditioned to secure their garbage cans, take in bird feeders and feed their pets inside, so nuisance calls and close encounters will begin to increase.

He hopes to document the movement next year when DNR and West Virginia University begin field work on a new bear census, which for the first time will include Washington and Frederick counties.

And Spiker hopes the bear hunt will continue to do its job. This year, a record 3,850 hunters applied for 260 permits, which were awarded in a lottery. The hunt will end when DNR reaches its quota.

Although they no longer picket in bear suits and video tape hunters bringing dead bears to the state check stations, animal rights supporters still condemn the hunt as a "moral outrage," saying it is not supported by scientific fact or popular opinion.

But the hunt probably won't be halted by political or social pressures. As governor, Robert Ehrlich approved the first hunt in 2004. His successor, Martin O'Malley, expanded it four years later. And it's unlikely suburbanites in the Baltimore-Washington corridor will be keen on sharing the hot tub with Boo Boo and Yogi or having their kids interact at the school bus stop with the real, live Berenstain Bears.

Sharp shooters

The Baltimore County Game and Fish Protective Association is offering hunter sight-in sessions over the next several weekends for shotguns, rifles and pistols. A $5 donation is requested for each gun.

The dates are Nov. 6, 13 and 20, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Nov. 7 and 21, from noon to 3 p.m.

The range is at 3400 Northwind Road. The clubhouse phone number is 410-668-4327.

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