The black bear (Ursus americanus) is the largest terrestrial mammal native to Maryland. Currently, Maryland has a resident, breeding black bear population in the 4 westernmost counties (Garrett, Allegany, Washington, and Frederick), with the highest bear density in western Allegany County followed closely by Garrett County. Maryland shares this thriving regional population with its surrounding states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The black bear is a species native to Maryland that was once distributed statewide. Bears were historically abundant because of the excellent habitats provided by Maryland’s native woodlands, meadows, swamps, and coastal plain. The black bear population suffered, though, as European settlers colonized Maryland.
The quality of Maryland’s forests was degraded as early settlers cleared the forests to harvest timber and expand agricultural land during the 1600s and 1700s. As a result, the quality of bear habitat was also greatly degraded. In addition, settlers considered bears to be a threat to their own existence and treated them as vermin. In fact, in the mid 1700s, a bounty was established in Somerset and Worcester counties encouraging people to kill bears. Bears were indiscriminately killed throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s. This indiscriminate killing, combined with large-scale habitat loss through uncontrolled timber cutting and a lack of conservation laws, eliminated black bears and other forest wildlife species from many parts of the state.
By the early 1900s, loss of habitat had restricted black bears to the western portion of the state. Maryland’s last black bear hunting season took place in 1953. By the mid 1960s, the black bear population was nearly extirpated and was restricted to the more remote mountainous areas of Allegany and Garrett counties. In 1972, the status of the black bear was changed from that of a “forest game” animal to being listed on the state “endangered species” list.
As Maryland’s second-growth forests have matured into a healthy and productive ecosystem, the black bear population responded by returning to parts of Maryland that had long been void of bears. Throughout the mid 1970s and 1980s, the Wildlife and Heritage Service (WHS) noted an increase in bear sightings and bear damage complaints. As a result, the black bear was removed from the state “endangered species” list in 1980 and listed as a “nongame species of special concern”. In 1985, the status of the black bear was once again changed from a nongame species to a forest game species. Hunting seasons remained closed, however, as WHS developed a research and monitoring program for Maryland’s recovering black bear population.
Thanks to the current healthy and productive condition of Maryland’s forests and the conservation measures taken throughout the mid-Appalachian region, the western Maryland landscape is now home to a healthy, thriving black bear population. DNR research and population monitoring have shown an increasing trend in the black bear population since the 1980s.
DNR monitors the population through a variety of annual surveys (Scent Station, Mortality, and Reproduction Surveys), all of which demonstrate an increasing trend in the population. Additionally, DNR periodically conducts population studies, estimating the size of the bear population. A 1991 population study estimated 79 bears in Garrett County (12.0 bears per 100 sq. mi.). In 2000, DNR conducted another population study that estimated 227 adult and subadult bears (27.3 bears per 100 sq. mi.) in Garrett and western Allegany counties. The 2000 study demonstrated a higher density of bears than was found in the adjacent Pennsylvania counties where 21.7 bears per 100 sq. mi. were reported at that time. Another population estimate was then conducted across Garrett and Allegany counties in May and June 2005. The results of this population study yielded an estimated population of 326 adult and subadult black bears in the same area (from Cumberland west). This population estimate revealed a bear density of 39.2 bears per 100 square miles. In May and June 2011, DNR completed the fieldwork necessary to establish yet another population estimate. In 2011, 701 adult and subadult bears were estimated in Garrett and Allegany counties. This study revealed an estimated bear density of 64.5 bears per 100 square miles in the study area.
Maryland’s black bear population has continued to grow, albeit at a slower growth rate since the implementation of a bear hunt. Black bears now utilize all areas of Maryland’s four western counties (Allegany, Frederick, Garrett, and Washington) year-around. Bear sightings in counties further east (e.g. Baltimore, Harford, Howard, and Montgomery counties) have become more common in recent years as well. These sightings are particularly common in the summer months as juvenile bears disperse (or spread out) seeking a territory of their own.
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