The image was captured on a surveillance camera in downtown Frederick last June, a lone figure darting across West All Saints Street. The intruder jumped a fence and climbed a tree before being apprehended. In Gaithersburg around the same time, there were reports of vandalism of a back-porch bird feeder containing sunflower seeds. Different culprits, but with matching descriptions: young — about 18 months old — male, about 100 pounds, furry.
Early summer is the time when yearling black bears, booted out of the family by their mothers, hit the road in search of new territory and food, mostly food. Lately, that road has been leading to the Washington suburbs.
It’s a wildlife success story with a twist. The American black bear, Ursus americanus, has made a comeback in Maryland. The population, last estimated at 1,000, is increasing, thanks to a combination of prudent management and improved habitat. And the bears’ range is expanding, from Garrett and Allegany counties, to Washington and Frederick counties. And with the expansion in the bears’ range have come increasing incursions into Montgomery County.
“I picture our bear population as a wave, moving across the landscape, west to east,” Harry Spiker says. The state’s chief bear biologist, Spiker has been in charge of monitoring and managing the population since 2001. As he describes it, the bears are simply “recolonizing territory they once roamed freely.” And there’s the rub: They’re encountering that other cohort of colonists, humans. Sometimes those encounters end badly, as with the death of a 210-pound bear that was hit by a pickup truck in Leesburg, Va., one night recently.
“Nuisance reports,” which are called in to the state’s Department of Natural Resources and which have typically numbered in the high 300s in recent years, jumped to more than 500 in 2013. The department investigates every report, and a third of last year’s turned out not to be complaints, just sightings. People tend to react in two ways when they see bears, Spiker says: They’re thrilled or they’re terrified. Either way, they tend to report it.
A third of the 2013 reports were of bears going through trash; a quarter involved bird feeders that had been scavenged. There was a scattering of more serious complaints — of bears making dens under porches, of damaging crops and beehives (yes, they really do like honey), and of occasional home invasions.
Most break-ins, Spiker says, are of vacation homes whose owners are absent. But in one instance last year, a couple living in a house in Garrett County was awakened by rummaging noises downstairs. After determining that this was not an ordinary burglary, Spiker says, the husband climbed out a window to seek help from a neighbor.
Most of the nuisance reports are from the western counties, because that is where most of the bears are. But there has been an increase in suburban bear sightings; Montgomery County had 48 last year, more than twice the number in 2012 and about five times the number in 2008. One bear even blundered into Bethesda early last summer. It was seen in Glen Echo on a Tuesday evening and in the District the following morning. The animal led police on a chase through the Palisades before being captured and released later that day in western Montgomery County.
Bears that stray into the suburbs are more lost than dangerous, and because they have keen homing instincts, they usually find their way home without help. (If you see one, Spiker and other bear specialists advise, don’t approach it, and definitely don’t harass it. Enjoy the experience, and contact the Maryland Department of Natural Resources — at dnr.maryland.gov or 410-260-8540; the after-hours number is 800-628-9944.)
Bears sighted in Montgomery County thus far have been males, or boars. Research has shown that their range is around 50 square miles, compared with 10 square miles for females, or sows. But Spiker believes it is only a matter of time before someone will see a sow and a cub in Montgomery County.
“I expect Montgomery County will be occupied any day now, if not already,” Spiker says. (“Occupied” is the wildlife term for a locale where sows are making winter dens, giving birth to cubs and raising them.) “We get so many bear sightings in that west-northwest part. I’m confident they’re there. We just haven’t found them.”
When that day comes, it will mark a milestone in what has been a remarkable reversal of fortune for Maryland’s largest mammal. Crowded out and hunted to near extinction, the population hit its low in the 1950s, when it was estimated that only about a dozen remained, lying low in the mountains of Garrett County. The state took action, banning hunting in 1953 and in 1972 designating the black bear a state endangered species.
But of equal benefit for bears, biologists say, has been the regrowth of the forests. Maryland’s woodlands have become prime bear habitat.
“We’ve got mixed northern hardwoods, mixed oak forest types,” Spiker says. “Acorns in general are the most-sought-after food. They’re available at the time of year when the bears need to put on the most weight. If acorns are not in abundance, as happens some years, there is also plenty of black cherry, hickory nuts, any number of species providing good nutrition. It’s a really productive habitat for them, this whole mid-Appalachian region.”
The population had recovered sufficiently by 1980 that the bears were removed from the endangered species list. As their numbers continued to increase, it was clear the next challenge would be to keep the population in check.
It was with this in mind that, in 2004, with the black bear population at 500, Maryland approved a two-day hunt. The first one in 51 years, it had a target quota of 30 bears. The move was strongly opposed by animal rights groups, which warned that the bear population might go into decline again. But well fed and well hidden among the hardwoods, the bears have only increased. Organized opposition to the hunt declined accordingly.
The state has gradually expanded the hunt, increasing the quota and opening the permit process to more hunters. In 2013, 94 bears were killed (the hunting term is “harvested”), just under the quota of 95 to 130 bears, by 380 hunters chosen in a lottery from 3,500 applications. The quota has been eliminated for the 2014 season. Instead, the hunt will be limited in time, to six days.
Spiker says the hunt is a “crucial tool” for managing the bear population. “Our goal with the hunt has been to allow the bear population to increase but at a controlled rate.”
It is a matter of balancing bear fecundity and bear mortality, and so far it has worked. From 2004 to 2011, the year of the most recent count by the DNR, the bear population doubled, from 500 to 1,000.
Monitoring bear mortality is a matter of simple addition: the number of “seasonal” deaths, or bears killed in the hunt, plus the number of “unseasonal” deaths, mostly motor vehicle collisions, about 50 every year. The result has been an annual mortality rate of about 20 percent.
Monitoring bear births — there is an average of 31 / 2 cubs per sow every year — is another matter.
Every year since the 1980s, state biologists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources have conducted a count of bear cubs, known as the spring reproductive survey.
About 20 sows have been fitted with collars that transmit radio signals for monitoring purposes. The survey’s methodology is simple: Track down half of them, and count their cubs. Over the long term, it provides a picture of bear population trends.
There is only a narrow window of opportunity for the survey: when the cubs are old enough to be taken out of the den to be counted but their mothers are too groggy to get worked up about it.
On a recent spring day in the Indian Springs Wildlife Management Area in Washington County, Spiker and a team of biologists and veterinarians went in search of Bear 1081, identified in department records as a 13-year-old sow, and, they hoped, a new litter of cubs.
The signal on 1081’s collar led them to the general vicinity. From there, the den was a dead giveaway: a hollow log, covered in brambles. They found the mother awake, in the hibernating state referred to as torpor, sitting in a slouch, nursing her young. A dart to the shoulder, fired from a specially equipped gun, sent her back to sleep before she had time to react.
Her four cubs were removed first. Just six weeks old, they snuggled inside technicians’ jackets. Then the mother was eased out of the log, wrestled onto a metal-mesh litter and conveyed to an impromptu examining area, in the leaves on flat ground nearby.
One by one, they were weighed (about 41 / 2 to five pounds each). Their temperatures were taken (just above 97 degrees). Each was microchipped.
The mother, roly-poly and healthy-looking, with glossy black fur, got a basic health check from veterinarians, including Cindy Driscoll from the Department of Natural Resources and Sarah Kline from the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. They took samples of blood, saliva and fecal matter. They cleaned a gash on the bear’s neck — the radio collar may have been rubbing the wrong way — pronounced the wound as looking worse than it actually was and gave the mother a shot of antibiotics in case of infection.
It took four people to get the mother back onto the litter, which was then hooked to a scale. There were nods of appreciation as the bear weighed in at a healthy 240 pounds.
Teamwork was also required to get the mother back inside the log. Spiker crawled in last, only his boots showing from outside as he made the bear comfortable. Then the cubs were returned, each with a dab of Vicks ointment on the top of its head to mask the smell of humans and prevent rejection by the mother. The mother also got a dab on the nose.
It had taken about an hour. The team gathered nearby for a review. Spiker also described what would happen next.
In a few weeks, he said, the bears would emerge. The cubs’ first lesson would be climbing. (He pointed to two nearby ash trees.) The mother would order them to climb, over and over again, until they got it. Once they’d mastered climbing, they would start ranging.
The mother is unlikely to wander far from this forest; bears are homebodies when it comes to territory. But one of the cubs might, or one of the cubs’ cubs. Keep the back porch light on.
Ellen Bartlett is a writer living in Chevy Chase.