There's a new hunting legend in the mountains of Western Maryland.
Born to the woods, she's 41/2 feet tall and 8 years old, with a shock of light brown hair and a steady trigger finger that put two bullets into a black bear's chest cavity Monday, according to her and her father and granduncle, who were hunting with her. State officials backed the claim by Sierra Stiles and credited her with the first kill of Maryland's second bear season since hunting the animals resumed after a half-century ban.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials, waiting to take measurements and tissue samples from the bears at a wildlife management center here, shook their heads in amazement at the news that the first hunter to bag a bear was a third-grade girl from Kitzmiller, on Maryland's border with West Virginia.
Sierra recounted here how she shot the 211-pound bear from 50 yards away with her .243-caliber rifle. "I was scared," she said, then paused for dramatic emphasis. "Because bears will eat anything!"
With evidence that the bear population has rebounded after nearly being wiped out in the early 1900s, Maryland is allowing hunters to kill 40 to 55 bears this season. This is up from a haul of 20 bears last year, when hunters met the quota in one day. The season is likely to last a few days longer because of the higher quota and abysmal weather: It was raining, then snowing, Monday in Western Maryland.
Early on, the hunt did not appear very promising: At least one hunter quit because of the weather, and animal rights advocates in bear suits protested in front of the natural resources headquarters in Annapolis.
Then at 9:50 a.m., Sierra, wet and shivering, arrived at the Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area with her father and granduncle in a red Ford F-150 pickup. They backed into a small garage, and game workers hoisted the bear's carcass out of the truck's bed with a hanging hook.
Donald Stiles beamed as his daughter, dressed in hunters' camouflage with a fluorescent orange vest, told how she skipped school to shoot the male bear.
After winning one of 200 bear-hunting permits granted by lottery this year -- and acing the required safety test with a score of 98 -- Sierra recalled being rousted out of bed by her mother at 4:58 a.m., wolfing down a bowl of cereal and heading outside, to a field on her granduncle's farm. They waited two hours in the bush under a steady, cold rain.
"I was dragging," Sierra said.
It got a bit brighter as the sun glowed sullenly through a thick blanket of clouds, she said. Sierra's granduncle, Robert Harvey, saw a dark shadow in the distance, but he didn't know what it was. Her father thought it was a bear.
"I froze up," she recalled. Regaining her composure, Sierra stood behind a tree, waiting until the bear was about 50 yards away, she said. Then she took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. The bullet struck the bear behind the shoulder. Unfazed by the rifle's light recoil, she said, she ejected the casing, reloaded and fired another round.
It hit. The bear ran about 150 feet before collapsing.
"I was really, really, really happy," Sierra exclaimed. "They won't eat now. They won't eat a thing."
She described her feat to a group of natural resources officials and reporters at the Mount Nebo center. Harry Spiker, who manages the hunt for the natural resources department, said he had no doubt that Sierra shot the bear. He said he'd heard lots of tall tales from hunters and had learned to distinguish the credible from the inflated.
If Sierra seems like a natural, it's probably because she is. Her father remembers carrying her out to hunt raccoon with him when she was 1 month old. But even he's never killed a bear, and the only bears Sierra had seen before Monday were in zoos.
After a trip to a taxidermist, she'll be able to see one all the time: She plans to take the stuffed bear home.
The Humane Society of the United States, which has urged Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to ban bear hunts, expressed concern Monday over the age of the hunter and noted that the first bear killed last year was a young bear.
"Governor Ehrlich is personally responsible for exposing young children and young bears to this cruelty," read the news release.
But hunters who came later, hauling bears of their own, were astonished by Sierra's feat of marksmanship -- usually bears will start to run too fast for a hunter to get off a second shot. And the bears weren't lulled into complacency by the 51-year moratorium, said Paul Peditto, director of DNR's wildlife and heritage service.
"Bears perceive humans as a threat, period," he said. "They don't know the difference between a human who's just out in the woods and someone who is hunting," viewing all as a possible danger to their feeding area.
So how did Sierra make the shot? "I'm fast at everything," she explained.
"I can't imagine the pride," said Tim Kvech, 31, the second hunter to bring in a bear. "My daughter's 9, and I can't do that."
The third hunter to come in -- and the third to arrive in a red pickup -- was Tera Roach, 23, a Reisterstown, Md., native. She had trapped two bears in Maine, but the bear she shot Monday, a 147-pound female was her first bear kill in Maryland.
Hearing of Sierra's feat, Roach said, "That's good to see any kids out there, especially girls."
"The ladies are taking over," Peditto observed. "And it's a good thing."