Some visitors proving hard to bear

June 24, 1998|By SHEILA HOTCHKIN

In the 38 years that Les Stoner has lived in Indian Springs, he's seen all kinds of game in the mountains around his house. But he wasn't expecting the black bear that lumbered onto his property about a year ago.

Uncommon in Washington County until recent years, the black bear visited regularly for about a month. The male bear tipped trash cans, spilled about 200 pounds of sunflower seeds and ate 14 pounds of other seed intended for birds.

In response, Stoner began taking his birdfeeders in at night, but the bear continued making its nightly visits for weeks.

"If he didn't find anything, he'd destroy things," Stoner said.

Once a state endangered species, black bears have rebounded in Maryland. As the animals have ventured outside remote areas of Garrett and Allegany counties the past two decades, they increasingly stumble into the habitat of humans, with results ranging from interest to fright to annoyance.


"They're getting more complacent with humans," said Patty Manown Mash, a spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources.

State records show that Maryland's black bear population had dwindled to 12 in 1956, three years after the state's final bear hunting season. In 1972, the black bear was named a state endangered species.

When Pennsylvania and West Virginia took steps to build up their bear populations, Maryland's population also began to increase as the bears crossed state lines and settled in Garrett and Allegany counties, according to reports from Steve Bittner, a forest game biologist for the Department of Natural Resources.

Mash estimates there are about 400 black bears in Maryland, although the animals' transient nature makes it difficult to get an exact number.

"They do not know the boundary lines of states and such," she said.

While most of the bears are farther west, some have begun working their way into Washington and Frederick counties, with sightings as far east as Carroll, Baltimore, Harford and Montgomery counties, Mash said.

Last year, there were 18 calls to the state's Wildlife and Heritage Division staff in 1997 regarding bear sightings in Washington County.

According to state records, the callers complained about bears disturbing birdfeeders and trash, as well as threatening livestock, poultry, beehives and buildings. Four bears were hit by cars, including two that were killed on Interstate 70.

On June 14, a yearling male was struck by a car and killed on I-70 in Frederick County after several sightings there, Mash said.

Not everyone is pleased that the black bear is making a comeback.

Some people "have just lost their patience with putting up with them," Mash said.

Although preferring fruit, nuts, plants and insect larvae, when a bear stumbles upon a ready food source - in birdfeeders, trash bags or pet bowls, for instance - it is not one to pass up the chance.

"It's not that it's more desirable," Mash said. "It's just that it's an easier food source."

Bears scatter the contents of trash bags and smash birdfeeders. Mash has heard tales of bears taking the lids off of charcoal grills and licking the grates.

Victims of such unneighborly behavior have had to adjust their lifestyles to discourage the bears, Mash said. Garbage must be sprayed with ammonia, grills kept clean and birdfeeders taken in at night.

"It is a shame, but if you don't want the bear problems, you have to do something about it," she said.

Washington County has largely been spared, with 18 complaints in 1997, compared to 232 from Garrett County.

Mash hopes people can be educated about bears before they vacation at Deep Creek Lake or elsewhere in far Western Maryland.

Tourists traditionally attract bears by leaving trash out during the summer months, she said. When the visitors leave, full-time residents must cope with the bears, who by then have become habitual visitors.

related story: Bear facts

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