The top predator, once abundant and later endangered in the state, is now at a healthy level
Black bear populations have risen in Maryland in recent decades and are now at a level that state biologists consider healthy.
To maintain a large enough black bear population that enables bears to sustainably reproduce while mitigating potential conflicts with humans, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has managed a limited bear hunt for the past 20 years.
“Black bears are the top of the food chain here in Maryland. They’re the largest omnivore,” said Jonathan Trudeau, black bear biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “They have no natural predators in the region to mitigate their population growth and keep the population in check. The only thing that does is humans.”’
Maryland reestablished its bear hunt in 2004, with an average of about 85 bears harvested each year. The length of the season varies, but it is never more than six days in October. In 2023, hunters harvested 103 black bears.
DNR estimates there are about 1,500 to 2,000 black bears in the state, though the number can be difficult to pin down because bears move between states frequently, according to Trudeau, who is also the game mammal section leader with DNR’s Wildlife and Heritage Service.
He said the hunt allows the state to manage the growth of the species. Black bears in the state are almost entirely in western Maryland, but they are expanding eastward. Bears have become common in Washington and Frederick counties, and individual bears have been seen as far as Baltimore County.
When bears venture outside of western Maryland, they can lead to a public commotion in populated areas. Black bears have swum in neighborhood lakes in Columbia, crossed lawns in Washington, D.C., and climbed a tree in the fenced-off National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda. These itinerant bruins often elicit media attention and sometimes prompt a public safety response, in which officials tranquilize and relocate the bear.
The hunt is intended to “limit and contain that eastward expansion,” especially into areas that are more urban and less familiar with bears, Trudeau said.
In June, female bears kick 18-month-old bears out of their roost, and the young bears go out in search of a new adult range. If there are too many bears in one area already, these young bears will disperse into new areas.
“The larger your population is, the more likely the bears will travel greater distances to find food and their own space,” Trudeau said.
Maryland has a far more restrictive hunting season than surrounding states, partially because the state has a smaller bear population. Hunting permits are based on a lottery system. The season, which is less than a week long, includes bans on hunters using attractants, baits, electric calls, and hounds.
The number of permits varies by year. DNR initially used a quota system that limited the number of bears hunted, but in recent years the population was considered large enough to support a more liberal season, Trudeau said. DNR eliminated the quota system in 2014, and soon after hunters started to harvest more bears, with a high of 167 in 2016 and at an average of 111 annually the past five years.
DNR staff monitors the black bear population using data from scent stations and surveys of litter sizes, as well as nuisance complaints. After the hunting season, staff also collect information from hunters on the difficulty of finding bears. From those surveys and the population data, DNR can assess trends and determine the appropriate number of permits, Trudeau said. This year, the state awarded 950 permits to hunt bears.
The population of black bears in Maryland has fluctuated over time due to human impacts. Black bears were once abundant across the land that later became the state, where habitats of woodlands, meadows, swamps and coastal plains allowed the species to thrive. After European settlers arrived in the region, black bears declined as forests were cleared for agriculture and settlers hunted bears indiscriminately.
State officials ended the Maryland black bear hunting season after 1953. Black bears became nearly extinct in the state and were limited to isolated areas of Garrett and Allegany counties. They were listed as an endangered species in Maryland from 1972 to 1980.
The resurgence of black bears in the 1980s and 1990s came as a result of forest conservation efforts in western Maryland. The United States only started to regulate hunting in the 19th century, and regulations led to an increase of bears and other wildlife by the mid-20th century.
State biologists consider the black bear population to be stable or increasing because the bears they observe are healthy, not diseased, and at larger weights, Trudeau said. Sows have a high reproductive rate of three cubs every other year, which suggests the bears have not hit a peak population density.
Black bears are relatively timid and not typically aggressive.
“They’re not like their cousins out west,” Trudeau said, referring to brown bears. “Black bears are much more likely to flee, much more likely to hide.”
Yet caution is necessary with these large predators. While there have only been two recorded black bear attacks on humans in the state, both occurred in Frederick County in recent years, one in November 2016 and another in September 2020. Both led to serious injuries.
While hunting is one tool for managing bears, Trudeau said another tool is public education. The department conducts outreach to teach residents how to coexist with bears, including how to avoid attracting bears and how to anticipate how bears will behave when encounters do occur.
For example, it’s important to dispose of garbage correctly in areas where black bears could be present, such as while camping in the woods.
Black bears can be aggressive when startled, so it’s good to turn on a light or make noise before going outside. Hikers and walkers should also make noise to alert bears to their presence.
If you encounter a black bear, back away slowly and speak calmly to it, Trudeau said. And of course, never come between a mother bear and its cubs. The department has partnered with BearWise to share more tips on black bear safety.
Still, black bears remain an uncommon occurrence for most Marylanders, and Trudeau said it’s important to appreciate them as wild animals. A 2022 public opinion survey on black bear management found that only 12% of residents reported ever seeing a black bear.
The survey, which the research firm Responsive Management conducted for DNR, found that 53% of respondents would support and 35% would oppose bear hunting in their county. Of 818 people polled across the state, 94% agreed that black bears should be preserved in Maryland for future generations, and 93% agreed that, even if they never see one, they “derive satisfaction from knowing black bears exist in Maryland.”
If residents have questions about bears or see a bear outside of its normal range, they can call DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service at 410-260-8540.
By Joe Zimmermann, science writer with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
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