Opponents of a planned black bear hunt in Maryland got their first political victory in Annapolis yesterday -- but it might prove to be a hollow one.
A joint committee of the General Assembly voted to oppose a proposal for the state's first black bear hunt in 51 years, prompting cheers from the dozens of anti-hunting advocates who had turned out for a public hearing.
But for all its drama, the committee's decision wasn't binding. Final authority rests with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), and a spokesman said the governor's mind had not been changed.
"There's no reason to anticipate that he will revisit that decision" to allow the hunt, said Communications Director Paul E. Schurick.
Yesterday's hearing, held by the Committee for Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, marked the first time this year that the controversy over the state's proposed bear hunt got a public hearing.
The state Department of Natural Resources announced the proposed hunt -- designed to kill 30 of the state's estimated 500 bears -- this spring. The hunt is scheduled for one week in October, and another week in December.
State scientist Paul Peditto told the committee yesterday that since black bear hunting was banned in Maryland in 1953, the population has risen from near extinction to the point where rural homeowners are reporting frightening run-ins with the animals.
The hunt would occur only in Garrett and Allegany counties in Maryland's western panhandle, where the bears are concentrated. The aim is to slow the expansion of the bears before they colonize eastern counties in the Washington and Baltimore suburbs, Peditto said.
"This proposal will in no way endanger our bear population," he said.
Animal-protection advocates have rejected the logic for the hunt, arguing that there was no guarantee that the 30 bears killed by hunters would be the ones causing problems for rural homeowners.
"This is like a crime-control strategy that involves shooting into a crowd," said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, at the hearing yesterday.
The humane society and another group, the Fund for Animals, have offered the state $75,000 to stop the hunt, saying the money could be used to teach people how to avoid bears and to compensate farmers whose crops are damaged by the animals.
Opponents of the hunt filled the committee's hearing room, many of them wearing bright green stickers that read "No Bear Hunt."
But the committee appeared divided along geographic lines: Several legislators said that advocates from bear-free suburban areas should not dictate policy for the state's far western edges.
Sen. John J. Hafer (R-Allegany), from western Maryland, asked how the anti-hunting groups might feel if bears were relocated from his region to theirs.
"You let us know where in Montgomery County you would like us to deliver these bears to," Hafer said.
Maryland is the second East Coast state in recent years to see the idea of a bear hunt split its suburbanites and rural residents.
In New Jersey, where there are hundreds more bears than in Maryland, the governor supported a hunt last year -- and then pulled back his support this year after a public outcry.
At the end of yesterday's hearing, the joint committee voted 12 to 7 against the proposed hunt. Its decision was applauded by Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals.
"We think this sends a strong, strong signal to Governor Ehrlich that he needs to put the brakes on this trophy hunt," Markarian said afterward.
But Schurick, Ehrlich's spokesman, said the governor will stick by his decision to allow the hunt.
"Nothing has changed," Schurick said. "The science has not changed since it was presented to the governor."
Yesterday's debates probably will not be the last word on this issue: Hunt opponents have said they might ask a judge to stop the hunt if all else fails.
"This is all going to end up in some court," said Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), who voted for the hunt yesterday.