You’re probably not going to spot a bear in Calvert, Charles or St. Mary’s counties this summer, emphasis on the word probably, but keep in mind it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility.
A 95-pound male bear was struck by a car on Route 235 in St. Mary’s County last July, and each year there are a usually a few confirmed sightings of bears as far south as Prince George’s County. But bears normally inhabit the more remote and mountainous region of the state, where critters have more open space to roam and live.
Here’s a bear trivia question for you: What are the three species of bears that inhabit North America?
Back when the first colonists arrived, bears lived in all parts of Maryland. By the 1970s, the numbers were so diminished that officials put them on the state’s endangered species list. By 1985, the population had recovered to the point that they could be put back onto the forest game species list.
In recent years, the black bear population and range has been steadily increasing. The Department of Natural Resources responded to this growth by expanding the hunting zone from Garrett and Allegany counties to including all of Frederick and Washington counties, too, for the 2016 hunting season.
If you’re planning a trip to one of the wilder parts of our state, destinations like Cunningham Falls State Park in Frederick County or Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County, an encounter with a bear is a distinct possibility, although you probably won’t even be aware of it if one does happen. Bears generally try to avoid people and usually head off in another direction when they see a human or hear a bit of noise.
But, that’s not always the case, especially if the bear is a mother with a cub, and it’s a good idea to be prepared if you do any hiking or outdoor recreation in areas known to have a bear population. Keeping food out of tents and in bear-proof containers and properly disposing of trash are the two most important ways to discourage bears from paying you a visit.
If you do happen to encounter a bear, DNR wildlife experts recommend calmly backing away from it. Even though your first instinct — understandably — might be to turn and run, doing so might trigger the animal to chase you.
Last week, a man in Maine was able to outrun two charging bears. But he, unlike most of us, is a professional marathon runner. Although bears aren’t usually aggressive toward humans, running away from one will probably not lead to such an incredibly lucky outcome.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a bear in the wild. I was visiting Yellowstone National Park for the first time, and everywhere outside the gates were signs warning visitors to drive slowly, look out for wildlife and not feed the animals. Approximately 60 seconds after entering the park, I almost slammed into one with my rental car.
Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a bush jumping around. But what I was actually seeing was a giant bear as it sashayed its way through a bush.
I had only a few seconds to realize it. I slammed on the brakes and skidded a couple feet as my daughter yelled, “It’s a bear! It’s a bear!”
It certainly was. The bear stopped in the middle of the road and stood its ground for nearly a minute before it very slowly lumbered the rest of the way across the road. It wasn’t in any rush. Then it disappeared into the bushes on the other side.
Answer to the trivia question: The species of bear that inhabits Maryland is the black bear.
Black bears live in most of the forested regions of the lower contiguous United States, Alaska and Canada. There are about 30,000 black bears in Maine, which is one bear for every 44 people who live in the state.
Brown bears, also called grizzly bears, are found in some northwestern states, Alaska and Canada. Although California is known as the “Bear State” and features a subspecies called the California grizzly bear on its flag, grizzlies have been extinct in California since the 1920s.
Polar bears live in Alaska and Canada. The other five types of bears in the world are the Asian black bear, giant panda, sloth bear, spectacled bear and sun bear. And even though bear is part of its name, the koala bear is not actually a species of bear.
Last month, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is sufficiently recovered and will be taken off the list of threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act. The GYE includes portions of northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho.
In the 42 years the grizzly bear has been listed as a threatened species, the population of bears in the GYE has grown from fewer than 150 to approximately 700 or more.
While some conservation groups and Native American tribes want the grizzly to remain protected, scientific evidence suggests the GYE is near capacity. That means the available territory and food in that area cannot support more bears without increasing the risk to humans and crops.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to delist the grizzly bear in 2007, but after several lawsuits were filed against the action a federal judge sided with groups that wanted to place the grizzly bear back on the list. All of the criteria for delisting the grizzly bear has been met for over a decade now.
Management of the grizzly bear population will be turned over to the state game agencies of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to handle cooperatively and scientifically.
The management plan allows for a well-regulated harvest of bears in areas outside the national parks. Policies are in place that protect both female grizzly bears with cubs and those young, dependent bears from hunting and stringent limits will ensure that a minimum population of at least 600 bears is maintained at all times.