Guide to Black Bear Hunting in Maryland

Bear Hunters' Guide to Hunting Black Bears in Maryland 2013

Planning Your Bear Hunt

As with any hunting trip, one of the first hurdles to overcome is determining where you are going to hunt. A bear-hunting permit will allow the hunter to hunt on either public or private land. However, hunters must first obtain permission from the landowner prior to hunting on private land. Once the Department has notified you that you were selected in the random drawing, it is time to choose a hunting area and begin scouting. Private landowners are often the best source of information while scouting a place to hunt. Private landowners can often clue you in to daily or periodic movements of bears, location of natural food sources and cover, and provide additional important information about the lay of the land. Increased scouting of your hunting area will greatly increase your chances of attaching your field tag to a bear.

Bear Habits

Based on their life requirements and habits, wildlife will occupy certain types of habitat at various times of the year. Black bears are creatures of habit that obey the demands of their stomachs. Because they must prepare for months of inactivity and no feeding during winter hibernation, bears will spend the majority of their waking hours feeding, especially during the fall of the year.

Food

Being opportunistic, black bears will eat almost anything edible and will generally concentrate on areas of food abundance. In October, bears in western Maryland may concentrate on stands of mature hardwood trees including oak, beech, and hickory which produce an abundance of hard mast or nuts. They also enjoy fruits including black cherry, apples, Aralia (devil’s walking stick), pokeweed and others. In areas of agriculture, bears will feed heavily on field and sweet corn. Woods that border a planted cornfield may provide great hunting potential considering that the forest will provide cover and travel routes for bears. Make note of available food sources while scouting and use that information to your advantage come hunting season.

Water

Like all living things, bears require a source of water. Because of their size, bears cannot rely solely on the moisture content of their food for proper hydration. They must have a stream, pond, or other abundant source of drinking water. Therefore, good hunting spots may be located along a travel route to a water source or overlooking the source itself.

Cover

Bears spend most of their lives as solitary animals and require cover to feel secure and protected from threats such as people, dogs, competing bears, etc. Bears typically prefer areas of dense cover such as mountain laurel and rhododendron thickets where they can move safely. They may also use young clear-cuts, pine, and hemlock stands, and other dense vegetation for cover. Good cover surrounded by bodies of water can be especially productive bear habitat. Areas such as upland bogs, alder thickets, and swamps may provide all of a bear’s major life requirements (food, water, and cover) in one location making them great choices for the bear hunter.

Suburbia

The opportunistic nature of bears is part of the reason they often appear in residential areas or other locations frequented by people. Again, following the dictates of their stomach, bears are often drawn to garbage cans, bird feeders, pet food, compost piles, gardens, bee yards, and other backyard fixtures. The bear hunter should not overlook huntable properties adjacent to suburban areas that experience persistent bear problems. Some wild things require pristine wilderness sites far from human disturbances. Bears are not in this category. Like white tailed deer, bears have learned to readily adapt to the urbanization of their habitat.

If you choose to hunt near residential areas, be sure to respect legal safety zones. Also, when hunting private property, be sure that you have obtained written permission from the landowner. Remember, pre-season scouting is essential for successful hunting. Meeting a private landowner and developing a good relationship prior to the hunting season can be just as important as locating a watering hole, bedding area, or prime feeding site.

Travel Zones

Bears are traveling animals and the population in Maryland is best described as regional. Tagged animals from Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia have all been recovered in Maryland. Likewise, Maryland bears have turned up in neighboring states as well. The home range of a bear varies depending on a variety of factors but, generally speaking, bears in Maryland will occupy a home range of between 13 and 50 square miles and may travel many miles in one day. Like humans, bears prefer to travel paths of least resistance. Within a tract of forest, a bear is more likely to travel a trail or dirt road than to bushwhack cross-country. Therefore, a trail linking a water hole to protective cover or a food source such as a cornfield or oak stand would be an ideal location to place a hunting stand. River and stream corridors are also favored especially in open areas since they are often banked with trees, shrubs and other cover.

Bear Sign

Owing to their size and habits, bears will often leave abundant sign in areas that they frequent. Scat or droppings, claw marks on trees, and footprints or tracks can help clue a hunter in as to the patterns and activities of bears.

Illustration depicting Bear Scat, Tracks, and Tree Scratches

Scat

An analysis of bear scat can tell a hunter several things about the animal that left it. First of all, it is an indication that a bear has been there. During the fall feeding frenzy, a bear may defecate 5 to 15 times a day resulting in an abundance of scat. Scat can be in the form of piles or logs, the size of which may give a clue as to the size of the bear. Small bears may generate logs comparable in diameter to a D-size battery whereas a really large bear may produce scat of the diameter of a soda can.

Scat content can help guide a hunter to the feeding site of a bear. Bears that frequent cornfields will generate yellowish scat laden with corn kernels. Bears feeding heavily on berries will leave berry scat. Scat that contains plastic wrappers and garbage indicate a bear that has been finding a source of residential trash. Animal hair, seeds, and other indigestible items will travel through a bear’s digestive system and be left behind in the scat. Since their stomach guides their habits, scat analysis can be an invaluable guide to the bear hunter.

Tracks

Bears have a characteristic track that is not easily confused with other animals. Because they are the largest animal in the woods they leave the largest track. Like humans, bears have plantigrade feet meaning their heel and toes both make contact with the ground. Unlike most mammals in the woods, bears have 5 distinct toes. The front feet make a track that resembles a human hand with short, stubby fingers and the hind feet show the same sort of fingers attached to a long heel. The toes may, or may not, show the claws. A 200 lb bear will make a track approximately 4 inches wide. Like scat, big bears make big tracks.

Tree Scratches

Bear paws are well equipped with large, sturdy claws used for climbing, digging or tearing. Sometimes bears will leave scratch marks 6-8 feet high on trees as a sign to other bears that the territory is occupied and defended. Other times, while scaling trees for food, bears will inadvertently leave scratch marks. Fresh tree scratches may help the hunter better understand the activities of local bears.