There was nothing unordinary about the morning walk Jamie Webb took around sunrise on July 8 near the Carroll County Industrial Park. That was, of course, until Webb stumbled upon a pair of black bears in the middle of Hillsville, less than a mile from Interstate 77.
While the encounter certainly startled Webb, the local photographer knew he had a duty to capture the rare images he was seeing. With a healthy, growing black bear population, bear sightings are becoming common throughout much of Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF).
A highly adaptable and intelligent animal, bears can live close to people. While local residents often do not know bears are living close by, some bears may wander into residential areas due to the smell of food around homes. The most common food attractants are bird feeders, garbage, and pet food; however, outdoor grills, livestock food, compost, fruit trees, and beehives can also attract bears.
Allen Boynton, a Biologist with VDGIF, said black bears are most likely to be spotted in the summer months of June and July for a variety of reasons. Chief among the causes of a bear sighting right now is mating season.
“At this time of year they are mating, so that is the main thing on their mind right now. Male bears move around a lot looking for females, so they are very active this time of year,” Boynton said. “The second reason is a sow bear only has cubs every other year usually, and just right before mating season, the sows will chase their young away. A lot of times the male bears will kill young bears and so she chases the young male bears more vigorously. This causes the young male bears to take off into parts unknown. They have been with their mother for over a year and they take off and they don’t know where they are. Bears are really curious and fairly intelligent critters and they get into all kinds of trouble.”
And the third reason bears are active right now is they will soon be going into a feeding frenzy to prepare for winter hibernation.
“Right after mating season they go into increased feeding mode where they are putting on fat for the winter, and it coincides with berries ripening. They will try to find and consume about 20,000 calories a day, which is 10 times what humans eat. That is three reasons at this time of the year they are unusually active and you might be more apt to see one.”
An increase in the state’s bear population may also be a factor in increased bear sightings locally, although Boynton said the bear population is not increasing as much in Carroll County as other parts of the state. At the same time, more bears are being killed now than in the past during hunting season. The bear hunting season has been extended in recent years to include two extra weeks for archery season (which runs from Oct. 4-Nov. 14 this year), a Youth Day (Sept. 27), and a new muzzleloading season for bears (Nov. 8-14) that has been added in recent years, as well as a three-week rifle season for bear in Carroll County (Dec. 1-20).
Randy Hurst, Conservation Police Officer for Carroll County, said bear issues haven’t been as bad locally this year as past years. Generally speaking, he said people shouldn’t be too concerned if they see a bear, although bad human habits can lead to increased encounters with the large animals.
“Because of movies and things like, people associate the black bear here with the grizzlies out west. Generally the black bear is a shy animal,” Hurst said. “One of the worst problems is they get around people’s houses and see that as a source of food. We encourage people to take bird feeders down if they see bears so they don’t become accustomed to being around people. Their naturally tendency is to shy away from people.”
A bear is just like a dog or any other animal. If it can find a consistent food source, it will keep coming back, so people need to be aware their habits can attract bear.
“Most of the calls I have is people that leave trash or bird feeders out, that is an open invitation. If they can get a free meal they will show up for it, and until that free meal is gone they will continue to show up,” Hurst said. “A lot of it is just educating people about bears. They haven’t had to deal with it, so they don’t know how to deal with it. In reality it is not an animal issue. People create their own problems some time.”
Boynton said the VDGIF’s website (www.huntfishva.com) is filled with information about black bears so people can educate themselves on the animal. Seeing a bear get into your trash is not as big of a concern as people think the first time it happens, Boynton said.
“There are things they can do to keep bears away from their yard or at least not attract bears to their yard. When there is a cause for concern is when a bear has gotten so much food from all the different things people do that they lose their natural shyness of people,” Boynton said. “When a bear has lost its natural shyness of people and allows a close approach, that is when people ought to be concerned. Generally in those cases we have to go kill the bear.”
Tips for Dealing with Bear
The following information for dealing with bear is from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ website.
What should you do if you see a bear?
• Enjoy and keep a respectful distance! In most cases, the bear will move on quickly.
• If a bear is up a tree on or near your property, give it space. Do not approach, and bring your pets inside to provide the bear a clear path to leave your property.
What should I do if a bear is consuming bird seed, garbage, pet food, etc., on my property?
• The best way to encourage the bear not to return is to remove the food source.
• 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.
• Take your garbage to the dump frequently.
• If you have a trash collection service, put your trash out the morning of the pickup, not the night before.
• Take down your birdfeeder for 3-4 weeks after the bear visits.
• 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, this situation can be resolved almost immediately after you remove the food source. Sometimes, the bear may return searching for food, but after a few failed attempts to find food, it will leave your property.
What do I do if I see a bear cub on my property?
• Do not try to remove it from the area or “save it.” When sensing danger, female bears will typically send her cubs up a tree and leave the area. In such cases, the female will almost always return to gather up the cubs when no people or pets are around.
Preventing problems with bears is a shared responsibility between the citizens of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. 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. Feeding bears may cause them to lose their natural distrust of humans, creating situations where bears may become habituated and sometimes aggressive towards people. Thus, human and bear safety is the responsibility of all residents of the Commonwealth.
If you experience a bear problem after taking appropriate steps of prevention, please notify your VDGIF 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.