Getting bear wise at the Marketplace

Bear Wise
The Friends of Peak Creek (FOPC) brought members of the New River Valley Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists to the Pulaski train depot Tuesday to discuss Living with Black Bears in Virginia. Here, NRV Master Naturalists and members of FOPC hold the pelt of a black bear that was used for demonstration purposes. (William Paine/Patriot Publishing)


Patriot Publishing


The Friends of Peak Creek (FOPC) began their Summer Nature Series last Tuesday with a presentation entitled “Living with Black Bears in Virginia and how to be BearWise”. Two of these bear centric talks were given inside the historic Pulaski train depot, as vendors and performers at the weekly Marketplace event did their business under the eaves outside.


These presentations are a part of the Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) new educational outreach program. Tuesday evening’s presentations were given by members of the NRV Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists. Master Naturalist Carol Kauffman gave the first presentation.


“New River Valley Chapter Master Naturalist Carol Kauffman is going to tell you all about bears, which I think is important,” said FOPC President Cathy Hanks. “I’ve had them tear my plants down. I’ve had them on my porch and last year I saw one on its hind legs peeking through my back door!”


In addition to speaking about avoiding human-bear conflicts, Kauffman brought out several interesting facts about black bears, the only species of bear found in the eastern United States. In fact, black bears are found in every state on the eastern seaboard except in Delaware and Rhode Island.

Bears are found throughout Virginia except in remote North Hampton County and other eastern shore locations on the Chesapeake Bay. Black Bears are most prominent in the mountainous regions of the Commonwealth but there’s also a large bear presence in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp.


These days, there are plenty of bears to go around but that wasn’t always the case, as bears were hunted to near extinction by the turn of the 20th Century. After the establishment of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in 1916, the black bear population rebounded and by 1930 was again listed as a game species.


According to the DWR, three quarters of what a bear consumes consists of nuts (especially acorns), berries, fruits, grasses as well as any vegetables they may come across. The balance of their diet consists of insects (they love beehives), small animals, fish and any carrion they might find.


“Bears mate in summertime but they do not implant in the female bear’s uterus until very late fall, early December,” Kauffman explained. “This is called delayed implantation and it will only occur if that female bear has been able to get enough calories to sustain her through the winter and she’s able to birth those cubs and feed those cubs. Technically, they’re not truly pregnant until very late in the year. But if that momma bear doesn’t gain sufficient weight, that egg gets reabsorbed in the body to give her another chance next year.”


Surprisingly, a bear pregnancy only lasts about a month and a half before the baby bears are birthed, which normally occurs in late January or February. Black bears are the size of chipmunks when they’re born but grow quickly on their mother’s milk.


Black bears don’t fully hibernate but are less active in the winter, as there’s less food available. Late summer and fall are the prime feeding time for bears, who can gain up to two pounds a day if conditions are right.


It is during this time of year, as bears are packing on the pounds, that human/bear conflicts are most common. The vast majority of these conflicts involve damage that bears cause to property, especially to crops and unsurprisingly, garbage containers.


Problems arise when bears become accustomed to seeing people and then begin associating people with a food source. If the bear loses its fear of humans because it associates food with humans, that could spell trouble.


So, how does one keep bears off of one’s property?


There are several ways, starting with removing or securing all food sources and for bears, that includes what’s found in the trash. Bear proof trash cans are available for purchase, as are other fasteners which can be affixed to trash receptacles. Alternatively, trash could be stored in a shed/enclosure during the overnight hours to discourage bear visits.


Bears also love birdseed and it’s no wonder why. One pound of sunflower seeds provides 2500 calories to a hungry bear, which is a lot more than can be found foraging in the wild for a couple of hours.


The DWR suggests removing bird feeders in summer and fall, as birds can find plenty of food naturally during this time. Taking the bird feeders down at night will also curb frequent bear visits.


Another tip to keep bears at bay is to keep one’s pet food out of reach. Don’t let leftover pet food sit outside (or inside a flimsy screen door) at night, as this will attract bears and other critters. As Kauffman noted, it is illegal to feed bears in the Commonwealth of Virginia, either intentionally or unintentionally.


Bears are also fond of gardens but their favorite food is undoubtedly honey, as one beehive could yield upwards of an astounding 70,000 calories to a black bears nutritional index.


Keeping bears away from these delights will likely require an electric fence, though there are other ways of discouraging a black bear visit. These include using an air horn to startle the bear. Launching a paint ball or rubber buckshot to a bear’s rump will also dissuade a bear from returning to the property, especially if this happens more than once.


Bear Spray works too, but the DNR only recommends using it if a bear is actually charging and not as a preventative measure. So, it’s not recommended to apply bear spray on tents or clothing as a means of deterrent, as this will lead to immediate regret.


Donkeys are apparently another means of discouraging bears, as they can be quite aggressive and … stubborn.


To deal with potential problems with bears and other wildlife, the DWR set up the Virginia Wildlife Conflict help line at (855) 571-9003. If there’s an issue with a black bear, the DWR will send a bear biologist to determine what to do but don’t expect them to simply move the bear to another location, as that’s been tried unsuccessfully in the past.  Bears have been known to travel hundreds of miles to return to a food source and this brings new perils for bears and humans alike.


Roanoke County recorded more calls to the Virginia Wildlife Conflict help line than any other locality in Virginia. Montgomery County also ranked among the highest number of calls to the help line, as according to Kauffman, black bears are a common sight in the backyards of Blacksburg.


In the worst-case scenario, the DWR will eliminate the problem bear but this is rare.


As far as encountering a black bear on the trail or even in the backyard, the DWR recommends NOT running away but instead slowly backing away while making oneself look big. Always allow the bear a means of escape … don’t ever corner a bear, as that scenario likely won’t end well for either party.


The Friends of Peak Creek Summer Nature series is scheduled for the second Tuesday of the month at the Pulaski train depot and will take place concurrently with the Marketplace event.  The series will continue through September.


On Tuesday June 11, the Master Gardeners will hold a plant clinic to provide research-based recommendations for home gardeners. In addition, the NRV Chapter of the Native Plant Society will be promoting the conservation of Virginia’s native plants and habitats.