Every year around this time, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries sends out a press release about black bears. It’s timed to coincide with the bears emerging from dens. As you might imagine, they wake up hungry. Though they’re not true hibernators, they haven’t been doing much for the past few months and their stomachs are empty. They’re capable of traveling quite far in search of food, and, as the press release says, “…can learn to associate human dwellings with food. The most common food attractants are bird feeders, garbage, compost piles, and pet food. Additionally outdoor grills, livestock food, compost, fruit trees, and beehives can also attract bears.” They’re not above eating carrion, though.
Even Richmonders, especially ones who live near the James River Park system and other green spaces, should be on the lookout. I remember Ralph White once telling me about seeing a black bear in the Pony Pasture area. Virginia really is black bear country, and while the largest populations are in the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains and around the Great Dismal Swamp, bears are likely to be seen just about anywhere.
These two pictures were taken by a deer hunter in Buckingham County on Thanksgiving Day. The bear was eventually scared off by hunters running dogs after deer.
Here’s more on bears in Virginia:
The best way to encourage a bear to move on is to remove the food source that is attracting it. Do not store household trash, or anything that smells like food, in vehicles, on porches or decks. Keep your full or empty trash containers secured in a garage, shed or basement unless they are bear proof. Take your garbage to the dump frequently, and if you have a trash collection service, put your trash out the morning of the pickup, not the night before. Take down your birdfeeder temporarily until the bear moves on. Consider installing electric fencing, an inexpensive and extremely efficient proven deterrent to bears, around dumpsters, gardens, beehives, or other potential food sources.
If addressed quickly, wildlife problems caused by food attractants in people’s yards can be resolved almost immediately. After you remove the food source on or around your property, the bear may remain for a short time, but after a few failed attempts to find food, it will leave your property.
Bears generally avoid humans, but in their search for food, they may wander into suburban areas. So, what should you do if you see a bear? The most important response is to keep a respectful distance. Black bears have a natural distrust of humans, and in most cases would rather flee than have an encounter with people. If a bear is up a tree on or near your property, give it space. Do not approach or gather around the base of the tree. By bringing your pets inside and leaving the immediate area, you give the bear a clear path to leave your property.
If you see a bear cub in an area do not try to remove it from the area or “save it”. Female bears will wander to find food usually with her cubs in tow. If she feels nervous, she will typically send her cubs up a tree and can leave the area. Bear cubs left where they are will almost always be retrieved by their mother as long as there are no people or pets around and the cubs are not moved by a person.
Always remember that a bear is a wild animal, and that it is detrimental to the bear, as well as illegal in Virginia, to feed a bear under any circumstances. Even the inadvertent feeding of bears is illegal including allowing bears access to unsecured trash or birdfeeders. Preventing problems with bears is a shared responsibility between the citizens of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
You can help manage the Commonwealth’s black bear population by keeping your property clear of attractants and communicating with your neighbors to resolve community bear concerns. If you visit outdoor recreation areas in bear country insist that the area supervisors manage their trash properly. Human and bear safety is the responsibility of all residents of the Commonwealth.
If you do see a bear in your area, enjoy watching it from a distance. If you experience a bear problem after taking appropriate steps of prevention, please notify your Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Regional Office. Phone numbers for the regional offices can be found by visiting the Department’s website at http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/about/offices.asp .