The state's first bear hunt in 51 years began Monday, as hunters set off before dawn to stalk the animals through the woods of western Maryland.

The morning was cold and foggy — "perfect for bear hunting," according to state Department of Natural Resources biologist Robert Beyer.

"Weather conditions are good; there is very little wind for the animals to scent," Beyer said. "We expect the hunters to be out in force, enjoying themselves for the first time in 51 years."

Baiting was prohibited during the six-day hunt, which was opposed by animal rights groups. Instead of waiting near a pile of jelly doughnuts or lighting up a smoky, sweet-smelling lure, participants must go where the bears are.

"You more or less gotta run into 'em," said Clarence Dayhoff Sr., who has killed three bears in Canada and hunted them in Pennsylvania.

Dayhoff, 64, of Hagerstown, planned to hunt with his son on private land in Garrett County (search). They are among 381 participants in the tightly regulated hunt.

At a meeting Sunday in Frostburg, DNR officials distributed the last of 183 licenses to hunters selected by lottery for the hunt in Garrett and western Allegany counties. Each permit entitles the holder and a companion to hunt, with just one bear allowed per team. Seventy percent of the permits are for use on private land only, and the landowner may participate as a third team member.

The hunt will end when 30 black bears have been culled from a resident population that has grown from a handful in the 1950s to an estimated 500. If fewer than 30 are killed, a second hunt will be held Dec. 6-11.

DNR officials, accused by animal-protection groups of holding a "trophy hunt," asked hunters to be sensitive to those who disapprove. "It doesn't do anybody any good to see a dead bear hanging off the back of somebody's vehicle that's not covered up," said Harry Spiker, the agency's black bear project manager.

The Fund for Animals (search) and the Humane Society of the United States (search), losers of a legal battle to stop the hunt, held an hour-long candlelight vigil Sunday night at the governor's mansion in Annapolis, seeking an 11th-hour "reprieve" for the bears. There was no response from Gov. Robert Ehrlich (search), who has consistently sided with DNR biologists on the issue.

Hunt opponents dispute the state's bear population estimates and the DNR's contention that the hunt is needed to reduce human-bear conflicts, including at least 17 highway deaths of bears this year.

Of the 28 states with bear hunts, 11 allow baiting and 17 permit use of hounds. Maine is the only state where bait, dogs and traps are permitted. Maryland officials proposed the hunt in February and the final regulation went into effect Sept. 27.

Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals, said hunt opponents plan to photograph and videotape dead bears at check-in stations. "We want to share this with the public and show people what is happening with these bears," he said.