The black bear hunt aims to preserve Maryland’s bear population
The top predator, once abundant and later threatened in the state, is now at healthy levels
Black bear populations in Maryland have increased in recent decades and are now at levels that state biologists consider healthy.
To maintain a large enough black bear population to allow the bears to reproduce sustainably while reducing potential conflicts with humans, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has managed a limited bear hunt for the past 20 years.
Black bears are the top of the food chain here in Maryland. They are the largest omnivores, said Jonathan Trudeau, a black bear biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. They have no natural predators in the region to moderate their population growth and keep the population in check. The only thing he does is people.”
Maryland recovered its bear hunt in 2004, averaging approx 85 bears are harvested each year. The length of the season varies, but it never exceeds six days in October. In 2023, hunters harvested 103 black bears.
According to Trudeau, who is also chief of the game mammal division with the DNRs Wildlife and Heritage Service, there are an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 black bears in the state, although numbers are difficult to determine because bears often move between states.
He said the hunt allows the state to manage the growth of the species. Black bears in the state are almost entirely in Western Maryland, but they are expanding eastward. Bears have become common in Washington and Frederick counties, and isolated bears have been spotted as far away as Baltimore County.
When bears roam outside of western Maryland, they can cause public unrest in populated areas. Black bears have swam in the neighboring lakes of Colombia, crossed lawns in Washingtonand: climbed a tree on the fenced campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. These traveling massacres often attract media attention and sometimes trigger a public safety response in which officials tranquilize and relocate the bear.
The hunt aims to limit and contain that eastward expansion, especially in areas that are more urban and less familiar to bears, Trudeau said.
In June, the female bears drive the 18-month-old bears out of their den, and the young bears move out in search of a new adult range. If there are already many bears in an area, these young bears will disperse to new areas.
The larger your population, the more likely bears will travel greater distances to find food and territory, Trudeau said.
Maryland has a much more restrictive hunting season than surrounding states, in part because the state has a smaller bear population. Hunting permits are based on a lottery system. The season, which lasts less than a week, includes restrictions on hunters using lures, baits, electric calls and trappers.
The number of permits varies from year to year. The DNR originally used a quota system that limited the number of bears that could be hunted, but in recent years the population has been deemed large enough to support a looser season, Trudeau said. The DNR eliminated the quota system in 2014, and hunters soon began harvesting more bears, 167 in 2016 and an average of 111 annually over the past five years.
DNR officials monitor the black bear population using data from scent stations and litter size surveys, as well as nuisance complaints. After the hunting season, the staff collects information from hunters about the difficulty of finding a bear. From those surveys and population data, the DNR can assess trends and determine the appropriate number of permits, Trudeau said. This year, the state issued 950 bear hunting permits.
Maryland has a population of black bears has fluctuated over time due to human influence. Black bears were once abundant in the land that later became the state, where habitats of forests, grasslands, swamps, and coastal plains allowed the species to thrive. After European settlers arrived in the region, black bears declined as forests were cleared for agriculture and settlers hunted bears indiscriminately.
State officials ended Maryland’s black bear hunting season after 1953. Black bears in the state nearly disappeared and were confined to isolated areas in Garrett and Alleghany counties. They were listed as an endangered species in Maryland from 1972 to 1980.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a resurgence of black bears occurred in western Maryland as a result of forest conservation efforts. The United States only began to regulate hunting in the 19th century, and regulations led to an increase in bears and other wildlife until the mid-20th century.
State biologists believe the black bear population is stable or growing because the bears they observe are healthy, not sick and overweight, Trudeau said. Hogs have a high reproductive rate of three cubs each year, indicating that bears have not reached their maximum population density.
Black bears are relatively timid and usually not aggressive.
They’re not like their cousins to the west, Trudeau said, referring to grizzly bears. Black bears are much more likely to run, much more likely to hide.
However, caution should be exercised with these large predators. While only two black bear attacks on humans have been reported in the state, both occurred in Frederick County in recent years, one in November 2016 and the other in September 2020. Both resulted in serious injuries.
While hunting is one tool to manage bears, Trudeau said another tool is public education. The department conducts outreach to teach residents how to coexist with bears, including how to avoid attracting bears and how to predict how bears will behave when encountered.
For example, it’s important to properly dispose of trash in areas where black bears may be present, such as when hiking in the woods.
Black bears can be aggressive when startled, so it’s a good idea to turn on lights or make noise before going outside. Hikers and hikers should also make noise to alert bears of their presence.
If you encounter a black bearBack off slowly and talk to it calmly, Trudeau said. And of course, never stand between a mother bear and her cubs. The department cooperated BearWise to share more black bear safety tips.
Still, black bears remain rare for most Marylanders, and Trudeau said it’s important to appreciate them as wild animals. a 2022 public opinion poll black bear management found that only 12% of residents reported ever seeing a black bear.
A poll conducted by Responsive Management for the DNR found that 53% of respondents would support and 35% would oppose a bear hunt in their area. Of the 818 people surveyed in the state, 94% agreed that black bears should be preserved in Maryland for future generations, and 93% agreed that, even if they’ve never seen one, they get satisfaction from knowing that black bears exist in Maryland.
If residents have questions about bears or see a bear outside its normal range, they can call the DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service at 410-260-8540.
By Joe Zimmerman, Science Writer for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
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