Last year in Maryland, hunters killed about 200,000 mourning doves and 87,000 deer. Squirrels and rabbits died by the tens of thousands.

Nobody held a protest or filed a lawsuit. Instead, it was a typical year in a state that, despite its urban and suburban centers, has more than 100,000 licensed hunters.

This year, everything has changed. Blue state, meet black bear.

As Maryland prepares for its first bear hunt in 51 years, hunters are lining up for the challenge: More than 1,600 have applied for the 200 licenses that will be handed out in a lottery this week.

But the response has been equally strong from hunting opponents, who have picketed the governor's mansion, dragged state regulators in front of a legislative committee and threatened legal action to stop a hunt set to begin next month.

"We've had people comment that they hope that we die, instead of killing the bears," said Harry Spiker, the state's chief bear biologist.

All this for a hunt that will net, at most, 30 bears.

Maryland is the latest East Coast state to struggle with controlling black bears, whose comeback was an environmental success story until it became a nuisance.

But Maryland is also what political scientists call a blue state, the kind of densely settled and traditionally liberal place where animal rights advocates have a better chance of being heard. In New Jersey, another blue state, last year's inaugural bear hunt turned into such a public-relations debacle that authorities called off this year's hunt.

Maryland officials say they need the hunt to thin a bear population that has grown so fast that the animals are invading cornfields and back porches in western counties.

Maryland's bear population hit a low of about a dozen in the 1950s but has rebounded to about 500, state scientists say. The bears are concentrated in the state's two westernmost counties, Garrett and Allegany, but have been spotted as far east as Rockville and Aberdeen. Similar growth in the population has been seen from Virginia to Maine in the past couple of decades.

The reasons are the same everywhere: less hunting and more food. In particular, the decline of logging and farming in the East has revived old forests, with the acorns, hickory nuts and wild cherries that black bears love. Also, eastern black bears are learning to live off what civilization has to offer, readily teaching themselves dumpster-diving and beehive-raiding skills.

"You've got people moving out and living next to bears, and you've got bears moving in and living next to people," said Mark Ternent, a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "The end result is that people and bears are going to bump into each other."

In Maryland, these encounters are becoming more frequent: Last year, there were 496 complaints about bears, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

The problem animals included Bear No. 264, which found a home in rural McHenry, Md., where the owner kept homemade sausage in a freezer inside his house. The bear broke in three times before it was shot and killed.

There was also Bear No. 499, which climbed through the kitchen window into a weekend home near Deep Creek Lake and escaped with a bag of pretzels, a loaf of bread and a slice of angel food cake, Spiker said. That bear was scared off with rubber-coated buckshot but allowed to live.

"Ten years ago, if you saw a bear a summer, that was pretty good," said Oren Bender, a farmer near the town of Accident in Garrett County. "This summer, I don't know how many I've seen."

The bears have raided Bender's backyard bird feeder and wallowed in his oats. They have mashed large sections of his cornfields as they've eaten -- leaving ruined spots that look like the handiwork of a UFO.

"I like to see bear," Bender said. "But I don't like to see the results of it."

Because of this kind of complaint, state officials have been considering a bear hunt for years. Their aim is to slow the growth of the population and prevent them from establishing themselves into more eastern counties such as Frederick or Montgomery.

This year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) gave his assent to a hunt in Garrett and part of Allegany. Hunts are set for Oct. 25 to 30 and Dec. 6 to 11.

Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania allow bear hunting, and all have expanded their hunts in recent years to handle a growing bear population.

But in Maryland, the idea of a hunt has struck a nerve.

"We believe that Maryland citizens are better than that," said Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals, based in Silver Spring. "We don't believe that we have to kill animals, for them to bleed to death, just so we can have their hides in our living room."

For two years, his group and others have pushed for legislation to ban bear hunting, but none passed the General Assembly.

They won a symbolic victory when a legislative committee voted against the hunt last month. But under Maryland law, Ehrlich was free to ignore that vote -- and he did. Now the groups are considering a lawsuit.

The conflict has exposed a cultural divide in the state. On the animal rights side are many people from urban and suburban areas, who tend to see hunting from the animal's point of view.

On the other are the hunters -- about 4 percent of the population -- who are used to being left alone.

"It's not about bears. Black bears [are] the vehicle," said Steve Huettner, past president of the Maryland Sportsmen's Association. "They don't like hunting. They don't like anything about it."

Both sides claim to have the public's support: The Department of Natural Resources released an opinion poll that showed that 65 percent of Marylanders supported bear hunting. Then the anti-hunting groups did their own poll, showing that 57 percent of the state agreed with them.

The true test of public opinion may turn out to be the hunt itself. That was how it went in New Jersey, which in December held its first bear hunt in 33 years.

The hunt succeeded in reducing the number of bears: 328 were killed.

But it also brought televised pictures of hunters hauling in furry carcasses, a reality of hunting that inflamed the opposition more.

One anecdote in particular shows how crazy New Jersey's hunt became. One morning, commuters in the town of West Milford jammed 911 lines with frantic calls about a bear cub lying wounded at the side of the road. The cub eventually died, then was carried off by a hunter -- an incident still cited by animal rights groups.

As it turned out, the animal hadn't been killed by a hunter: It was struck by a car, said Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell. A hunter hauled off the dead bear and shot the carcass so that he could claim it as his kill. It was the kind of incident that allowed both sides to believe the worst about each other: Animal rights activists are hysterical; hunters are bloodthirsty.

This year in New Jersey, hunting opponents have crawled into humane bear traps and held vigils outside Campbell's home. Campbell decided he wouldn't go through it again and has refused to issue permits for a hunt this year.

"We simply can't conduct a hunt at that level of controversy," he said in an interview last week. Instead, Campbell wants the state to use strategies that don't involve killing, including possible sterilization.

In Maryland, hunting opponents say the state should spend more time using dogs and pepper spray to scare bears away from humans.

But Bender, the farmer from Accident, said he worries that his neighbors will get fed up and deal with the problem themselves.

In Garrett County, Bender said, this approach already has a name, which refers to killing the bear illegally and then burying it. It's called the "Three S's."

"Shoot, shovel and shut up," Bender said.