About 200 protesters -- clutching teddy bears and black bear posters -- shouted in a galloping chant that echoed in the State House courtyard: "STOP the TRO-phy hunt! STOP the TRO-phy hunt!"
Led by a woman dressed in a black bear costume and Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, the protesters -- many of them members of the Humane Society and the Fund for Animals -- called on Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) yesterday to stop the state's first black bear hunt in more than half a century.
"We want the governor to know he can't sit on his hands and let this happen," said Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals.
Between 266 and 437 bears are in the state, up from as few as 12 bears 50 years ago, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The state announced this year that it will issue permits for killing 30 bears in Western Maryland beginning in October. DNR representatives say the reduction will cut down on bear complaints, which range from killing of livestock to backyard sightings.
"It is intended to remove about 10 percent of the bears in the hunting area" -- Evitts Creek in Allegany County -- Paul Peditto of the DNR said of the bear hunt, "and to limit the growth of the bear population . . . to other areas of Maryland."
But the protesters -- waving "STOP THE BEAR HUNT" signs in front of the governor's mansion -- were adamant. They argued that there is no scientific justification for the hunt.
"It's a political payoff to the [National Rifle Association] and the groups that back Ehrlich," Pacelle said. "They're trying to dress up this hunt as a damage control hunt when it's really just a sport hunt."
Protesters said they preferred to see the state use education to reduce encounters between bears and humans, by teaching people to seal trash cans and keep food stored so it does not attract bears.
The Humane Society and Fund for Animals offered the department $75,000 to cancel the hunt. The money could be used to compensate farmers for bear damage to property and livestock and to set up bear deterrents, such as electric fencing around beehives and crops, representatives for the two groups said. Representatives of the DNR called the sum a "bribe."
"It is an ethics conflict to accept that kind of funding in exchange for a change in our policy," Peditto said.
Clutching a poster of a bear, Joseph Lamp came to the rally as an insider to the state's decision to allow hunting. In 1998, he was appointed to the state Wildlife Advisory Commission, which he says is made up mainly of hunters.
"This is being done because of the bear hunting community," said Lamp, an Anne Arundel Community College professor.
Sue Farinato of Damascus, who is licensed by the state to rehabilitate wildlife, said that before authorizing a hunt, the state should have a plan in place to help orphaned cubs.
"If a bear hunt takes place, there will be bear cubs orphaned when their mothers are killed," Farinato wrote in a letter to Ehrlich in February.
Farinato, who attended the rally, contends that a hunt could lead to more conflict between humans and bears when the orphaned cubs go hungry and begin turning to trash cans and bird feeders for sustenance.
Farinato pointed to states such as New Jersey that pair hunting with rehabilitation programs. New Jersey legalized hunting last year, and more than a dozen protesters drove to Annapolis from New Jersey to urge Maryland not to do the same.
"Why make another mistake?" said Steve Ember, 52, a systems analyst from Middlesex, N.J. "Killing these bears indiscriminately . . . is unscientific."
Markarian added that more bears were killed in New Jersey than the targeted number and that officials there are reevaluating bear hunting.
"To allow trophy hunters to kill these bears for fun or for bearskin rugs," Markarian said, "just turns back the clock on half a century of bear protection here."