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Bears 1,000+; Hunters 69

Maryland bears and hunters coexist

DNR biologists collect data from harvested black bears.

Maryland is a pretty wild place, and getting wilder all the time. Foxes are joining deer, groundhogs, opossums, raccoons and squirrels as regular neighborhood families; skunks and coyotes are occasional visitors.
    Lest black bears rejoin the list of wildlife returning to their original statewide range, some 1,100 hunters stalked them, killing 69, in Allegany and Garrett counties from October 20 to 23.
    This year’s hunt was the 11th since Maryland bear hunting resumed in 2004, a half-century after the species neared extinction. Given that respite, black bears rebounded, numbering over 1,000 and breeding in Maryland’s four westernmost counties.
    “We have a healthy ecosystem out here,” says Harry Spiker, Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ man on bears. “Survival is generally good. A cub has more than 70 percent likelihood of survival to adulthood, and adult bears can live up to 20 years in the wild.”
    Growing from cub to bear takes plenty of food. In the wild, that’s mostly acorns, especially white oak acorns. At a year, the average cub weighs 65 to 75 pounds, with males on the high side.
    The biggest bear killed in this year’s hunt weighed 418 pounds. That, Spiker said, would be a “pretty large male adult.” Males can get over 700 pounds, while grown females average about 300. The largest bear taken since hunting resumed weighed 615 pounds.
    Preparing for hibernation this time of year, bears “may be feeding up to 20 hours a day,” Spiker says. “They may pack on 100 pounds preparing for winter.”
    So locating acorns is a hunter’s best way to locate a bear.
    Maryland forbids hunting with dogs and baiting, aids to hunting allowed in some of the close to 30 bear hunting states. Bags of donuts are a favorite bait.
    Here hunters have to work for their prize. “Most are taken,” Spiker says “by hunters who spend a lot of time scouting. A lot spend a month of weekends beforehand looking for areas bears might be hanging.”
    Even so, bagging a bear is, he says, a real challenge. “Those bears, you cannot beat their noses.”
    Winning the right to hunt bears is also a challenge. Permits are drawn by lottery on the Wednesday after Labor Day. Of 3,600 hopeful hunters, 450 were permitted and allowed to make parties of up to three hunters, each party with a limit of one bear.
    Success means a big job. Dragging a 148-pound bear — this hunt’s average — is “like dragging a load of Jello,” Spiker says. Then they’ve got to skin the bear — after checking it in.
    The skin goes to the taxidermist for a trophy; the meat is butchered for eating.
    Death by hunting, cars and happenstance helps maintain “a health population at a level the natural and cultural environment can maintain,” Spiker says. “We’re at a pretty good level overall.”