Maryland's first black bear hunt in 51 years ended after just one day Monday, when hunters bagged two-thirds of the quota set for the entire season, officials said.
Twenty bears were killed by hunters and brought to state checking stations Monday, Department of Natural Resources officials said. Still more bears might have been killed by hunters who are planning to bring them in to be counted Tuesday, the officials said.
The hunt was supposed to stop when 30 bears were killed. Paul Peditto, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources official in charge of the hunt, said he decided to stop before reaching that limit because he worried about public reaction if it was exceeded.
"It would be more difficult for us to explain [that circumstance] than it would be for us to explain to the hunting community" that the hunt was over, Peditto said Monday night.
Officials declared the season closed, though five more days of hunting had been scheduled for this week, plus another week in December. Hunters calling a hotline after 8 p.m. heard a recording attributing the closing to "overwhelming first-day success." They were told that any bears killed Monday could still be brought to check-in stations before 4 p.m. without repercussions.
The closing of the hunt brought an abrupt end to a long-running controversy. Anti-hunting groups based in Maryland had opposed the hunt through public hearings, protests and a lawsuit, but failed to stop it.
"We're glad that the killing will stop, but it's a sad day," said Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals, after the hunt was called off.
State officials said that they believed that the hunt was more successful than expected because of good weather and a high turnout among hunters -- more than 400 were believed to have participated.
Peditto said the bears were divided roughly evenly between males and females. The largest bear weighed about 250 pounds, he said, and the smallest was a 10-month-old female weighing about 84 pounds.
State officials proposed the hunt this spring to reduce a bear population that has rebounded from a low of about 12 in the 1950s, when bear hunting was halted.
The population now stands at about 500 statewide, officials say, and residents in Western Maryland have complained about bears raiding cornfields and garbage cans. Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania allow bear hunting and have expanded their hunts in recent years to handle growing bear populations.
The hunting season began before dawn Monday as hunters filtered into foggy woods in Garrett and Allegany counties. The first kill was recorded just after daylight, when David Ciekot, 35, shot the 10-month-old female bear near the town of Friendsville, in Garrett.
Ciekot, an Eastern Shore resident who writes outdoors columns for a newspaper in Salisbury, said he noticed the bear's small size but knew that Maryland regulations do not require that bears under a certain size be spared. "I knew it wasn't very big," he said. "I was shooting whatever came through."
Ciekot said the bear nearly got away: He spooked it by moving his Winchester .270-caliber rifle, and it ran off about 40 yards. Then, Ciekot said, the bear turned around and looked at him, seemingly unsure whether the hunter was a threat. "If [the bear] had been in a group that had been hunted, [it] probably would have kept running," Ciekot said.
Instead, it stopped, and Ciekot shot it through the chest. The bear ran a short way and then collapsed, Ciekot said.
"I'm pretty proud to be the first one to bring one in," Ciekot said. "I mean, it's the first modern-day bear hunt in Maryland."
The second bear killed was a roughly 140-pound male shot by retired Internal Revenue Service agent Sheridan Green. Green said he spotted the bear in an acorn-strewn stand of oaks near the Potomac River and fired from about 100 yards away.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal for me," said Green, 59, of Oakland. He said he had been prompted to apply for a bear permit by his wife, who wanted a bearskin rug.
State scientists took teeth, hair and tissue samples from all of the dead animals and said they would contribute to a more complete picture of the state's bear population.
It had been so long since bears were hunted in Maryland that the state held an orientation Sunday to instruct hunters on the best ways to stalk bear and the most vulnerable spots to shoot them.
State bear biologist Harry Spiker told the hunters that they should behave like "ambassadors" in a state where hunting is not a leading pastime. "It doesn't do anybody any good to see a dead bear hanging off the back of somebody's truck," Spiker told the hunters.