Disney’s animated movie “The Jungle Book” answered why early summer black bear sightings happen. Food is a bear necessity. While Virginia Black Bear Project Leader Jaime Sajecki estimated the bear population statewide to be around 17,000 bears, it is how much food (mast crop) is produced in the wild in the fall and spring that makes the fur-covered foragers seek a buffet in a dumpster.
“When there’s not a lot of natural foods out there or are scarce because of a drought, we tend to get more calls in the spring,” said Sajecki. “Especially if this follows food being scarce in the fall. The majority of calls we get are from people not sure what to do when they see a bear in a residential area. The vast majority of calls statewide are calls related to bears eating at bird feeders.”
Black bears have a natural distrust of humans and usually avoid people. However, bears habituated to humans by being provided a regular food source can cause property damage, lose their fear and have to be destroyed. It is cause and effect. Remove the food and the bears will leave. She suggested these techniques which usually solve the problem and prevent it from re-occurring:
•Remove bird feeders. It is best not to put out food for birds from April through November. Instead, plant native seed- bearing plants or use water features to attract birds to your home.
•Secure garbage indoors, in a shed or garage, or in a bear-proof container. Put garbage out on the morning of pickup, not the night before, or take it to the dump frequently.
•Pick up pet food. Feed pets only what they will eat in a single feeding or feed them indoors. Remove all uneaten food. Do not leave food out overnight. Do not store food, freezers, refrigerators, or trash on porches.
•Do not put meat scraps in the compost pile. Keep compost away from house.
•Pick up and remove ripe fruit from fruit trees and surrounding grounds.
•Clean the grill often. Do not dump drippings in your yard. Run the grill an extra five minutes to burn off grease.
•Install electric fencing to protect beehives, dumpsters, gardens, compost piles, or other potential food sources (instructions can be found here)
•Use harassment in conjunction with removing the attractant to get the bear to move off your property. Paintballs are considered a great tool for hazing bears. They are nonlethal, will not harm the bear if it’s shot at the rump, and are painful enough to get the bear moving away from homes.
“You (from a safe distance) want to make sure the bear doesn’t feel at home,” Soljecki said. “Yell at the bear, bang stuff together. The fines for illegal hunting aside, shooting a bear with anything which penetrates its skin causes all types of what become lethal injuries for the bear.”
She said bear’s sense of smell is keener than a dog’s and the scent of garbage is a powerful lure. Incidents where bears destroy ATV seats and hot tub covers are an example of the bear reacting to the scent of insulation breaking down which smells like ants, an important food for bears.
Pass along this information to your neighbors. If anyone in the neighborhood is feeding wildlife directly, or indirectly, it can cause trouble for everyone. Sajecki said it is illegal to deliberately feed bears on both public and private lands. Even the inadvertent feeding of problem bears is illegal. (Not removing a bird feeder attracting bears for instance.)
If these techniques do not solve the problem, people may contact a licensed trapper or a critter removal service. People experiencing a problem with wildlife may also call the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) toll-free wildlife conflict helpline at 1-855-571-9003.
Under most circumstances, department staff will not trap and relocate a bear from your property. The department’s feeling is such conflicts do not warrant trapping. A bear simply being in a neighborhood is not considered a threat or cause for this action.
She pointed out black bears and humans coexist in many parts of North America and throughout most of the Commonwealth. Residential areas of Virginia are encroaching into forested lands and habitats commonly used by wildlife, as human populations are also growing and spreading across most areas of Virginia.
Typically, VDGIF will not trap or relocate a bear eating from a rural residential area’s trash or birdfeeder. It is considered the landowner or resident’s responsibility to remove the attractants from the property once a bear discovers the food source. If it is unclear what is attracting the bear, VDGIF staff will help identify the attractant so it can be removed and offer advice for deterring bears.
If a bear is on or near your property, do not escalate the situation by approaching, crowding around, or chasing the bear. Keep a safe distance. This also applies to bears that have climbed up a tree. The best thing is leave it alone. A bear who feels cornered will be looking for an escape route. By keeping people and pets away from the bear, you give it the best chance to come down from the tree and leave your property on its own. Bears generally avoid humans, but in their search for food, they may wander into suburban areas.
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 a mother bear feels nervous, she will typically send her cubs up a tree and can leave the area. The sow will leave the cubs there until she returns and calls for them as long as there are no people or pets around.
Living with Bears in Virginia, a video produced by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, is available on the Department’s website and provides tips for coexisting with bears. People may visit http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/bear/ to view the video, print a brochure, read more about bears in Virginia.
David Broyles may be reached at 276-779-4013 or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave.