Spring in Virginia, Time for Bears

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From the Tidewater region to the Alleghany Mountains, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) personnel are already receiving numerous calls regarding bear sightings. With a healthy and growing black bear population, bear sightings during the spring and summer months are becoming the norm in Virginia. While the highest concentration of bears occurs in the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains and around the Great Dismal Swamp, bears are likely to be seen just about anywhere in Virginia.

During the months of April and May bears have left their dens and are ending their winter fast. Bears do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate while they are in dens. Additionally, while denning, female bears may give birth to cubs. Cubs are born weighing less than a pound and are reliant on their mother’s milk. As new spring growth emerges, so do bears, and they are following their stomachs in search of food.

Bears are highly adaptable and intelligent animals and can learn to associate human dwellings with food. In their search for food, bears are attracted to residential areas by the smell of food around homes. The most common food attractants are bird feeders, garbage, and pet food. Additionally outdoor grills, livestock food, compost, fruit trees, and beehives can also attract bears.

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. 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 fear 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. The mother bear will leave the cubs there until she returns and calls for them. Bear cubs left where they are will almost always be retrieved by their mother as long as there are no people or pets around.

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 nuisance bears is illegal.

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 the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at 804-367-1258.

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 peacefully coexisting with bears. Please visit www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/bear/ to view the video.