As Md. bear hunt nears 10th year, state biologist reflects on its impact

With the 10th year of the modern Maryland bear hunt approaching, state bear biologist Harry Spiker, who has managed the hunt since its return after a 51-year absence, reflected in an interview with The Baltimore Sun on what happened when the hunt returned, whether he feels it has accomplisted its goals, and where the hunt — and the bears — will be going in the future.

BS: With the 10th year of the bear hunt coming up this week (Oct. 21-26), what do you remember of the hunt back in 2004?

HS: What I remember is the attention that we got from around the world. We had interest in it from England and Japan and people commenting in the United States from as far away as California. I just remember all the controversy and the fear that some people had that we were going to wipe bears out and that they wouldn't be around. Since then, the population has continued to grow at a more controlled rate, and 10 years later, we're basically following the same model.

BS: How big is the current bear population, by your estimation, and if there was not a bear hunt, how big would it be?

HS: Our last population estimate was in 2011 and, based on that, I can comfortably say that there were more than 1,000 bears in our four western counties, more than 700 adult and sub-adult bears in Garrett and Allegany counties, which is where the hunt takes place. To be honest, I don't know if I could give a point estimate of what it would be if we had not had this hunt for the last 10 years, but I can say that it would be much, much larger than what it is.

BS: Do you think the bears would have migrated more into more populated areas such as Frederick, Montgomery and Howard counties?

HS: We're definitely seeing a range expansion of bears. We don't consider Montgomery County occupied because for us to consider a county occupied, you have to have evidence of sows giving birth to cubs there. We have so many sightings in Montgomery County. I expect they are there, we just don't know it. But I expect to color Montgomery County in on our map [as occupied] very soon. Our bear population has recolonized, moving like a wave from west to east, and I do believe we have absolutely slowed down that wave so that the eastern part of our state is minimized because of the hunt.

BS: Do you see a day when the bear hunt itself would expand to those other counties?

HS: Bears are tough to collect data on because of their large home ranges and the fact that they typically avoid people. As the populations grow there — and we're monitoring the population in Washington and Frederick counties — I can see it being expanded in the future. I don't think it's there yet. I can definitely see it happening in the future. We don't have a specific criteria set up, but we will continue to watch the expansion and the population. That's not a discussion we've had at this point. … We also will see how people respond to the bears. We do a lot of education on how to live with bears, and how people react to bears is just as important.

BS: As you mentioned, there was a lot of controversy leading into the first bear hunt, including a lawsuit the week before, trying to stop it. Do you feel as if those who were opposed then will be opposed regardless of how controlled the hunt is, or do you see the opponents beginning to understand what the intent is?

HS: I think you'll probably see both. Some people are opposed to hunting in general and will never accept hunting of any species. I can see a shift in our urban areas that people seem to be more willing to allow deer hunters into their properties now than they did 15 years ago. That's more a sociological question than a biological question.

BS: In terms of the bear population, has it changed at all?

HS: Absolutely, it's changed. Our stated goal is to slow the growth, to have a more controlled growth of the population. Our goal was not to turn the population down the other way. That's what we have done. In fact, before the first hunt, if memory serves me right, we had a ballpark figure of 330 sub-adult bears here in Allegany County. In 2011, it was over 700. I say adult [18 months and older] and sub-adult because the methods we use totally ignore the cub class. We know that's a minimum, conservative estimate.

BS: Ten years into the hunt, is there is still a lot of enthusiasm in the state for bear hunting?

HS: Interest has grown. The number of applications we've seen has climbed. A few less this year than last year — last year was our peak, at just over 4,000 applications for 340 permits. This year, we had just around 3,600 people apply for 380 permits. That first year was just over 2,000 people applied. We've definitely seen an increase in interest from the public.

BS: That first year, I read that the bear quota was taken in one day. What are expectations for this year's hunt?

HS: That's the only year we reached quota in one day. Since then, most years, it's been a four-day hunt. One year, it was a two-day hunt, and two years where it was a five-day hunt. I think we'll reach the quota of 95 to 130 bears in four to five days.

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