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Bear hunt stirs emotions for backers and detractors in Maryland

(MCT) — Kaitlin Zembower had gone deer hunting with her father, Jerry Zembower, countless times through the years near their Frostburg, Md., home, but the experience they shared during last year’s black bear hunt was much different.

Though Jerry Zembower had seen the same bear every day on his way to work in the week leading up to the hunt, he and his daughter didn’t see any, let alone shoot one, during their hunt.

But Kaitlin wouldn’t trade those hours last October for any other time she had spent with her dad hunting.

“When we go deer hunting, we’re usually in different places,” said the 20-year-old Frostburg University senior, who is in the school’s wildlife and fisheries program. “When we were out for the bear hunt, we were there together. It was great to have that experience to be with him. It really matters.”

Said the elder Zembower, president of the Allegany-Garrett Sportsmen’s Association: “It’s a good type of bonding experience. You learn about all kinds of things — you learn about nature, your family. It’s a good time.”

Many families like the Zembowers will share that experience this week as the annual black bear hunt opened Monday in Maryland, but those opposing the hunt — which was reinstituted in 2004 after a 50-year absence — say filling the family room with mementos can be done in much more humane way.

“We don’t have to go killing a black bear to build family memories — that’s outrageous,” said Joe Lamp, who served 14 years on the state’s Wildlife Advisory Committee. “You can certainly do that with a Nikon, not a Weatherby (hunting rifle).”

In particular, Lamp is opposed to children under the age of 16 who have either been issued tags to the bear hunt or will be taken along by those who are among the state-record 340 invitees to the event, which Lamp and others call “nothing more than a trophy hunt.”

Although Kaitlin Zembower did not kill a bear in her first bear hunt a year ago, young hunters have made their place in the event’s local lore.

Sierra Stiles of Kitzmiller was 8 when she shot and killed a 211-pound bear only 30 minutes into the second year of the hunt’s revival in 2005. A year ago, another young Kitzmiller resident was one of six under the age of 15 who killed bears during a four-day hunt.

The 376-pound bear that 12-year-old Colton Lucas killed had been menacing the town near the West Virginia border, turning over trash bins and making his way onto the porches of several homes to get to the bird feed. Colton was hailed as something of a local hero, and his father, Joe Lucas, who had never had taken part in the bear hunt after years of trying to get a tag, said “he created a memory in his own backyard.”

Harry Spiker, a bear biologist for the state Department of Natural Resources who manages the bear hunt, said the event is much different from deer hunting. Getting a permit for the bear hunt is viewed in the Maryland hunting community as “winning the lottery,” Spiker said. More than 4,000 applied for permits issued this year — also a record.

“If you draw a tag (for the bear hunt), you don’t know if you’re going to get one for another five or 10 years,” Spiker said.

A quota of between 80 and 100 bears killed has been set by the state to reduce a growing population of bears that, according to Spiker, has moved east — even into Maryland’s residential Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — in recent years.

Those who receive tags for the bear hunt are allowed to take up to two others with them, and Spiker said that often involves family members, because the hunt “is partly about building family camaraderie and having the opportunity to build that memory, if you will.”

But Lamp doesn’t think the bear hunt is about adding to the family scrapbook or the hunter’s house decor. Among the piles of letters and legal documents detailing Lamp’s unsuccessful fight to shut down the bear hunt is a Baltimore Sun clipping from 2004 about the opening day of the hunt.

In it, 8-year-old Sierra Stiles, who received one of the 192 permits given that year, told a reporter that she wanted to turn the dead animal “into a rug.”

That’s just the kind of statement Lamp said supports his argument for not allowing children under the age of 16 to be allowed to hunt.

“There’s no age restriction on getting a hunting license in Maryland. Kids 5 years old and up have gotten hunting licenses,” Lamp said. “We know the human brain is not fully developed until they are in their early 20s. The critical area for reasoning, decision-making on the spur of the moment, is not developed. … I have a huge, huge problem with youth hunting.”

Lamp questions how adults can be arrested for leaving children 8 and under unattended in their homes, but “not for letting them go hunting in the woods. … My concern is that you’re doing a lot of harm to a kid. He or she is probably not aware of what they’re actually doing — taking a life of a sentient creature.”

According to data Lamp said he received from the DNR in the late 1990s, nearly 50percent of those who passed the state’s test to get a hunting license were 16 and under. Spiker said the number of resident junior licenses has ranged between 8,500 and 9,500 for the “last several years.” It represents about 2 percent to 4 percent of the total number of licenses issued.

Lamp also believes most involved in the bear hunt do not live in Western Maryland, where much of the state’s bear population — estimated at 721 animals — resides.

“If it’s because these people need the meat to feed their family, that’s one thing, but that’s not the case,” Lamp said. “There are people from everywhere who are trying to get the permits. I believe there are very few from Western Maryland, based on the probability of it.”

It might come as a surprise, but Lamp, who plans to conduct his annual one-man protest near his home in Anne Arundel County by spending part of the day with an anti-hunting sign and a small toy bear on College Parkway, is not completely opposed to the circumstances that led to Colton Lucas’ kill last year.

“When it comes down to shooting a rogue bear, I can’t see anyone complaining,” Lamp said. “If they want to shoot a bear that is menacing people in a town, I have no problems with that. But if they’re out there shooting bears in a barrel, that’s wrong.”

Kaitlin Zembower sees it differently. She understands what the state is trying to do in terms of reducing the bear population and can see how it wants to promote hunting among a younger generation. She sees the sport’s popularity firsthand every day she goes to class.

“I think (wildlife and fisheries) is one of the fastest-growing majors in the school, and there are a lot more women in the program,” she said. “I think it shows a great future” for hunting and other outdoor sports.

Her father was set to be out there, having been invited by a friend who won this year’s bear hunt lottery.

“It’s a big deal,” Jerry Zembower said.

For a different reason, Lamp would agree.

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