Legislation under consideration in Annapolis would force the introduction of wild black bears into each of Maryland’s 23 counties. But don’t grab your shotgun before taking the trash out just yet – the lawmakers involved admit the bill is little more than a political bluff, designed to beat back the advances of liberal legislators who would do away with Maryland’s annual black bear hunt.
At issue is the fate of Maryland’s apparently burgeoning population of black bears: Will they continue to be managed/harvested through a controversial state hunting lottery, be allowed to breed and expand their territory without the intervening hand of man or will they be plucked from their scant remaining habitat and redistributed to each and every county in the state?
These are the options on the table and, beginning Wednesday afternoon during an Environmental Matters Committee hearing in Annapolis, the Maryland General Assembly will ponder House Bill 762 – legislation giving the state 7 years to establish a population of black bears in each of Maryland’s 23 counties.
Del. Wendell Beitzel, a Republican representing Allegany and Garrett counties, is tired of the Beltway politicians acting like they know what’s best for his constituents out in the furthest reaches of western Maryland. Out where people get their local news from Pittsburgh and root for Steel Town sports teams. Out where the snow is measured in feet rather than inches. Out in bear country, where black bears are a legitimate nuisance and everyday threat to livelihood, rather than the relict symbol of enduring wildness they have become in metropolitan and suburban Maryland.
Thus the battle lines are drawn.
Under the administration of former governor Bob Ehrlich, Maryland enacted its first black bear hunt in more than a half-century. The idea was to cull the growing and spreading population of bears while energizing the regional hunting industry and, yes, probably bring in some business for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources through the sale of hunting licenses and entry into the lottery to determine who gets the right to track and kill a black bear.
The bear hunt was met with great resentment, mostly from the metropolitan and suburban portions of the state, where people couldn’t get past the image of Smokey the Bear being slaughtered to see the reality of living with black bears, which cause property damage, kill livestock and destroy crops.
Enter Del. Barbara Frush, a Democrat representing Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, who has introduced HB 657, which would classify black bears as nongame mammals; prohibit DNR from reducing the black bear population in the state and prohibit the department from establishing an open season to hunt black bears.
This was Beitzel’s frustration – a metro politician going after the bear-lover vote with legislation that would likely have no impact on her urban constituents, but would directly affect the lives of western Marylanders living side-by-side with black bears.
So Beitzel fired back. He introduced HB 762, which would require the state Secretary of Natural Resources to establish a program to ensure that, by October 1, 2015, a black bear population is introduced into each county in Maryland.
That’s right, Beitzel essentially just told Frush and her supporters that, if you want to hug bears, we’ll be more than happy to send them your way.
It’s a genius bluff – a ploy to counter Frush’s bill. If the bear hunt is banned, Beitzel will have a greater argument to need to disburse western Maryland’s black bear population – so why not move them to Frush’s own county where people seem to be clamoring for more and more bears?
But is such a premise even environmentally viable? Could black bears live in Prince George’s County? What about the beaches of the Eastern Shore? Here’s what DNR has to say about that:
Historically, black bears were found in all of Maryland’s counties. However, as settlers cleared the landscape for agriculture, industry, and timber production throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, most of Maryland’s suitable black bear habitat was lost.
By the mid-20th century, black bears could only be found in the rugged mountainous areas in western Maryland. By the mid 1950s, only a few bears were estimated to remain in the state. In 1953, the black bear hunting season was closed due to concerns of a dwindling bear population. In 1972, the status of black bears was changed from ‘forest game animal’ to ‘endangered species’ in Maryland.
So, theoretically, black bears did and could live in every county in Maryland – they just haven’t for about a 100 years.
But this is all just a political ploy, right? I mean Beitzel is just bluffing Frush to get her legislation pulled or defeated, right? We’re not actually talking about a redistribution of Maryland’s black bear population into each of the state’s 23 counties, are we? Perhaps.
“Del. Beitzel’s black bear bill was introduced for the purpose of controlling the black bear population in western Maryland. Del. Frush has introduced a bill, HB 657, that would prohibit the hunting of the black bear. If her bill passes then the black bear population would go unchecked. Del. Beitzel’s bill provides a solution that would allow the bears to survive, but in different parts of the state. His office has been in contact with DNR and they have mapped locations in nearly every county where the black bear could survive,” wrote Justin Hanna, legislative assistant for Harford County Del. Donna Stifler.
Stifler, along with Harford County Dels. B. Dan Riley, Susan McComas and Mary-Dulany James, have all signed on as sponsors supporting Beitzel’s black bear population distribution plan.
Harford County gets one or two bear sightings each year, but is a notoriously dangerous place for a young black bear to try and coexist with humans.
A few years ago, there was a black bear who was swimming across the Susquehanna River between Darlington and Conowingo and was tranquilized and shipped out to western Maryland by DNR. When it was discovered the bear had already been tagged as a nuisance animal (with yellow tags literally hanging from his ears), the black bear was euthanized.
Not long thereafter, another young black bear met his maker on the side of I-95 near Riverside.
And, of course, who can forget the affable bear who meandered his way through Harford County, from the Pennsylvania line down onto the heavily guarded Aberdeen Proving Ground U.S. Army post, before being shot by a former racecar driver in Creswell as the bear tried to grab a scrap of food from the shooter’s dog bowl?
But now we’re told DNR has “mapped locations in nearly every county where the black bear could survive.”
Survive? That doesn’t sound too promising. Do we really want or need black bears out there just trying to survive each day, dodging traffic and bullets, while looking for breakfast?
The next logical question, at least to me, is where in each county would these black bears be deposited? Unfortunately, while the areas have apparently been designated by DNR, finding out where they are has proven difficult, to say the least.
“I have not forgotten about your request. I spoke with DNR, unfortunately they only have a large hardcopy of the map. It is rather outdated and could be misleading. I do not mean to give you the run around, but [Senator George] Edwards’ office has a large copy of the map, but they don’t want it taken out of their office. Let me know if this helps,” Stifler’s assistant Hanna offered.
“Outdated and could be misleading?” We’re talking about bears here. You don’t really want to get your lot lines wrong when it comes to where you’re going to establish a population of living, breathing 300-pound meat-eaters.
And what constitutes a population? Assuming DNR’s own estimate that there are about 600 black bears in Maryland, spreading them out evenly among the 23 counties in the state would result with each county ending up with about 26 bears.
In one of Maryland’s smaller counties like Calvert, that comes about to one bear every 8 square miles. That’s not too bad considering the population of Calvert County is only about 84,000. Extending that same scenario to, let’s say, Howard County, we end up with one bear every 9.7 square miles. This is a little more troubling considering those same 9.7 square miles in Howard County would also be home to 9,544 people – as the county has a density of 984 people/square mile. The odds of Howard Countian running into a black bear, perhaps literally, would be quite high.
Can you even move black bears around like this? I mean they have a home range of at least 40 square miles — why would a bear stay in Prince George’s County? I don’t even like staying in Prince George’s County longer than I have to.
From DNR’s own 2004 Black Bear Management Plan:
Increased mortality of relocated bears has been documented due to various factors such as bear/vehicle collisions and hunting mortality precipitated by the bears’ increased movements after release at a new site (Massopust and Anderson 1984, Mark Ternent-PA Game Commission, pers. comm.). Relocated bears may attempt to return to their original home range or may increase movements while trying to learn a new territory. Young, subadult bears are less likely to return to their capture site after translocation than adult bears, but may be susceptible to the aforementioned mortality factors as they explore new habitats.
Bears should be released in an area containing suitable black bear habitat to increase the likelihood of a successful translocation (VDGIF 2002). However, translocating nuisance bears is often not a feasible solution. Limited available habitat, the likelihood that bears will return to the capture area, and the intolerance of humans to bears are all factors that affect the success of these efforts.
OK, so the bears will probably just try to get back to western Maryland anyway once reloacted and, in attempting to return home, would probably become roadkill in the process. And what’s this about “intolerance of humans?” That doesn’t sound too good. You mean the black bears being relocated from Garrett County into Montgomery County might not take too kindly to their new neighbors? This is beginning to sound like something from the Island of Dr. Moreau.
Where’s the voice of reason in all of this? Are there really too many bears in western Maryland? Do we need to keep hunting/harvesting them? Are we seriously talking about redistributing “the wealth” across the state?
B. Dan, bring us home and clear up this mess.
“The bill is meant to send a message. The message is to allow Washington, Allegany, and Garrett Counties to handle THEIR bear problem. What right do people in counties such as Montgomery and Prince Georges have to dictate bear policy in Western Maryland? These are not your cuddly little teddy bears you read about in nursery rhymes. They do threaten the safety of humans , their pets, and property.
“True, humans are encroaching on the black bears native habitat. True, the bears were there first. But at one time all of Maryland was part of the black bear habitat. So maybe we should repopulate the black bears ancient habitat and let everyone enjoy the bears presence in their yards, in their gardens, on their porch as the bears tear down their doors and rip out air conditioner units so they can come into your house for a friendly little Goldilock return visit,” Del. Riley wrote in an email.
Well said. So I think I finally get it. It’s a tongue-in-cheek act meant to parry an attempt by metro and suburban legislators to halt the bear harvest. Right?
“I find it unbearable that other jurisdictions dictate to other, smaller jurisdictions, how to address their local issues,” Riley added.
After all this, I sure hope that pun was intended.