Michael A. Sawyers
From 2007 through 2011, the Maryland Wildlife & Heritage Service killed 11 bears that were considered to be threats to public safety or predicted to be unable to survive.
This year, five have already been put down through early June.
The agency calls the fatalities management kills.
This spring, farmers along Amish Road in Garrett County, not far from Grantsville, called the agency to report that a bear had killed three goats. Another three goats were injured so badly that they had to be put down.
“Our staff got there quickly. We were going to run the bear with dogs, but then it returned,” said Harry Spiker, who directs bear research and management for the agency. “There was no doubt that the bear we saw was the bear that killed the goats so we put it down.”
The animal was a male weighing 167 pounds.
Near Barton there was a report that a bear had killed a calf. A wildlife crew caught up with a three-legged sow of 126 pounds and two cubs.
All three were euthanized, the cubs because they were unlikely to survive.
“The cubs weighed 7 and 4 pounds,” Spiker said. “They should have been 20 pounds or more at that time of year. We have very good success relocating orphaned cubs when sows are still in dens, but this was too late for that.”
Spiker speculates that the loss of a front leg on the young sow weakened the animal and made it difficult to properly nourish herself and her offspring.
The agency uses the rule of thumb that a cub surviving until July will very likely make it to adulthood on its own if abandoned.
“We get 300 to 400 calls about nuisance bears each year, yet we put down very few,” Spiker said.
The numbers from two neighboring states are substantially greater. In West Virginia during 2011, 85 bears were killed for causing property or crop damage.
The largest number of bears killed in Pennsylvania for similar problems was 35 in 2009. Another 27 were killed in 2010. Those totals include bears put down by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and by landowners.
In 2011, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries euthanized eight bears; three for public safety, two for commercial livestock depredation and two that were habituated because of being held in captivity.
In 2010, Virginia put down six bears.
Each of those three neighboring states allows bear hunting by anybody who buys a license. Hunters in West Virginia and Virginia kill about 2,000 bears a year. Pennyslvania hunters check in about 3,000.
Bear hunting in Maryland is allowed only for hunters who draw one of the 260 available permits.
“There are people who don’t want us to kill any bears and there are people who want us to kill more bears,” Spiker said. “We try to make the correct management decision.”
When a bear is put down, it is almost always by way of a gunshot. That method offers more safety for agency personnel than the use of drugs, according to Spiker.
“We manage the entire population of bears, not individual bears,” Spiker said. “And our population is in good shape and expanding. We trap, conservatively, 30 bears a year, and very few are put down.”
Most of those bears receive what is called aversive conditioning, meaning the animals are doused with pepper spray, startled by loud noise makers and often shot in the butt with rubber buckshot or slugs. They are released where they were trapped.
Sometimes it works and a bear’s fear of a repeat is greater than its desire to pop the lid on a garbage can.
Sometimes it doesn’t work.
The fifth bear put down this year was a 266-pound male in the Chestnut Grove area near state Route 135 on Backbone Mountain.
In spite of a couple run-ins with pepper, noise and rubber, that bear kept returning and entering buildings.
Spiker said neither he nor his fellow workers enjoy putting down a bear. “We all have a bit of a personal reaction to it,” he said. “We do what needs to be done.”
Wildlife biologists anywhere in bear country often say, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Bears that find ready food sources at human domiciles will return, time and again, a behavior that often leads to their demise for being nuisances and threats to public safety.
Sometimes that food is intentionally put out for the bruins. That’s illegal.
A person’s first conviction for feeding bears in Maryland can bring a fine of $1,500. Subsequent convictions cost $4,000 and provide the individual with county food for one year, though it is consumed behind bars.
Bears injured by highway strikes are often euthanized.
“When we hear that one has been hit, we always go look,” Spiker said. “If we find the bear and it is still alive we try to determine if it will be able to survive and move out on its own. These animals are amazingly tough and sometimes survive severe injuries.”
If an injured bear needs put down, that task sometimes falls to Natural Resources Police officers or even State Police troopers, though the decision is made by the wildlife staff.
Spiker said private organizations have offered to attempt to rehabilitate injured or nuisance bears in Maryland.
He calls bear rehab a gray area without assured outcomes and a process that can lead to large, dangerous animals becoming accustomed to human company.
“Wildlife science is not like chemistry where you know what you get in a beaker where you mix known quantities of chemicals. Bear decisions have to be made with human safety in mind first and foremost.”
Spiker said he expects the number of euthanized bears to increase, though he doesn’t anticipate that it will ever be a large total.
The biologist awaits the results of a new bear population estimate study. The most recent was in 2005 and estimated the state had 600 bears.
Contact Outdoor Editor Mike Sawyers at firstname.lastname@example.org.