Michael A. Sawyers
Maryland’s bear season opens tomorrow and, believe it or not, is the 10th such event since bruin hunting returned to the state in 2004. There had not been a bear season for 51 years. I remember very clearly when we started to realize that bears had discovered the great habitat waiting for them in Almost Maryland. It was the mid-1980s. Jim Clise, a Maryland Natural Resources Police officer was a cadet then.
Somewhere I have a photo of Clise near the den where someone shot and killed a sow bear just inside the Garrett County line not far from Barton. The death of the sow, of course, meant the death of the three cubs that would have been born in a week or two.
As I recall, this was the first time in modern history that a pregnant bear had been documented within the state’s borders.
In 1972, bears were considered to be a Maryland endangered species. Then, in 1980, bears became a nongame species of special concern.
The most important step leading to a hunting season took place in 1985 when the bear was reclassified as a forest game species.
Each step provided less protection to bears because of evidence showing the population on the upswing.
Then there was a bear task force made up of people who hunt, people who don’t like hunting and people who would be affected by bears. That group said there should be a hunt.
In addition, the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Advisory Commission, another citizen group, approved a hunt.
But Parris Glendening didn’t want a hunt. Because he was the governor, that was that ... for eight years.
But, later, there was another task force. A hunt was recommended once more. Let me be the first to report, however, that, in announcing that news, the members did not hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” I was there.
And, to be fair, those who wanted a hunt, did not chant “Who’s your daddy.”
A hunt was approved during Robert Ehrlich’s term as governor and has continued during the two terms of Martin O’Malley.
And, oh, the gnashing of teeth.
The teeth didn’t belong to bears, which are pretty good gnashers themselves, but to the animal righteous folks (ARF). My how they clamored, calling those who would shoot bears trophy hunters and then complaining even more loudly when little bears were killed and checked in.
Maryland has always allowed those who draw a bear tag to harvest any bear they choose. The bear population is managed by removing bears ... period.
The Department of Natural Resources, which is the daddy of the Wildlife & Heritage Service, survived various challenges as the agency attempted to scientifically manage black bears.
There were General Assembly challenges where bills eliminating the hunt were introduced.
There were legal challenges, the last one falling on its face when the judge told ARF that bears have no standing in his courtroom.
So then the emotional effort went forth, spearheaded by full page ads in The Baltimore Sun urging Gov. O’Malley to end the hunt.
He didn’t. O’Malley stuck with his wildlife experts and went with their advice. The hunt was still on.
My favorite quote out of the whole word battle dealing with the bear hunt came from some California-based expert hired by ARF. He said people don’t have to worry about bears hurting them.
He said that when confronted by a bear, simply “Stand erect and proclaim boldly, ‘Bad bear. Bad bear.’” But then Californians live in their own universe. The governor there just outlawed lead ammunition. Maybe that means there will be more ammunition for us Marylanders to use in guns we can’t buy now.
I have been fortunate to have participated in three Maryland bear hunts.
In the very first year I was named as a subpermitee. We hunted near the Pennsylvania state line at Keysers Ridge. We didn’t see a bear on the opening day, which was also the last day. The hunt was closed after 20 bears were checked in.
I drew a tag in 2006 and hunted on a windy, snowswept day near Bittinger. No bears. Couldn’t hunt the second day, but planned to return for day three.
There was no day three. The hunt was shut down with 41 bears harvested.
Then, 2009, got lucky and drew again.
On the third day of a fourday season, 1.1 crow miles from my house on Dan’s Mountain, I shot a bear.
It was such a memorable experience that I don’t even lump it with all my other hunting memories. It stands alone, in its own category.
The venison from that bear was the mildest I have ever eaten, almost too mild, but that’s why God created McCormick & Company.
Maryland’s bear hunt is very popular. In 2012, 4,027 people applied for 340 permits. This year, 3,504 put in for 380 permits, knowing the $15 fee would not be returned.
In 2004, the harvest quota was 30 bears and the hunt stopped after 20 were killed.
Since then, the harvest quota has risen annually. This year it is 95-130 bears. The hunt area continues to be Garrett and Allegany counties. And, although the Allegany County bear population is growing substantially, most bears continue to be taken in Garrett.
A year ago, 92 bears were harvested. That’s a record.
“This year the harvest range is 95-130 bears so even at the low end a new record will be set,” said Harry Spiker, the bear project leader for the WHS. “To date, we have harvested an even 500 bears since 2004.”
Although not every holder of a hunting license gets to hunt bears in Maryland, those who do have a high success rate.
“Our success rate last year was 13 percent,” Spiker said. “It was 12 percent the couple years prior to that. The regional average runs 3-5 percent.
“People tend to automatically assume that means our population is much higher than our surrounding states which is not the case. Instead, it is due to the fact that we have a gun season in October when bears are very active foraging to put on winter weight. Our season is also timed prior to females going into the den so there are more bears available to hunters than there are in states that start their seasons after mid-November.”
The largest bear taken was the 615-pounder killed near Swallow Falls in 2007 by Coty Jones, an Eastern Shore resident.
Contact Outdoor Editor Mike Sawyers at msawyers@times-news. com.