CUMBERLAND, MD. -- Wildlife managers may propose the state's first bear-hunting season in 38 years because the swelling population of the animals is raising public concern.

"It's one of the options to manage the population," said Joshua L. Sandt, forest wildlife program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Bears are neat animals to have around, but we want to keep them at a population that is compatible with landowners. They can be a nuisance."

Timber harvests, land clearing and wildfires in the late 1800s and early 1900s shrank the habitat for much of the wildlife, including black bears.

The bear population, which is about 200 in Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties, began increasing about eight years ago when officials in Pennsylvania moved about 7,000 from the northern part of the state to forests near its southern border.

An increase in the nuisance reports is prompting state Del. George Edwards (R-Garrett) to introduce legislation for a bear season. It would be the first since 1953.

A spokeswoman for an animal rights group said it would oppose a hunting season.

"I get a lot of calls on this issue," Edwards said. "In addition to damaged crops, there have been cases of livestock being killed."

State wildlife officials received 34 nuisance reports about bears last year, compared with 24 in 1989, Sandt said.

Last year's reports included six damaged beehives, seven cases of bears raiding corn fields and 17 others, including allegations of bears attacking livestock and rummaging through trash at campsites.

Edwards attempted to get a bear season through the General Assembly two years ago, but the idea was rejected by legislators from other parts of the state.

"One of the problems we have is that we're the only county that has a problem with bears," Edwards said. "The rest of the state doesn't agree with what we'd like to do."

The state plans to release a bear management plan this spring, after meeting later this month with state wildlife biologists from Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other states.

"I'm pretty sure it will include some sort of hunting scenario along with a number of other options," Sandt said, adding that a hunting season could start as early as the fall of 1992.

Heidi Prescott, a spokeswoman for Fund for Animals, a Silver Spring-based animal rights group, said her organization would fight bear-hunting legislation or regulations.

"They are slow-reproducing animals. If there are complaints, they should be dealt with on a site-by-site basis with maybe fencing or relocation," Prescott said.

She said she does not believe there are 200 bears in the state because the animals often roam back and forth from western Maryland into West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Hunters are pushing for a bear season because they "want another trophy target," she said.

"I think they need to focus on public education on how to live with bears, and emphasize that we share this Earth with other living things," she said.