How to Live With Bears

Tim Merrick’s Fall Newsletter 2016
How to Live With Bears

There have been a lot of sightings of bears this past year. Encounters between bears and humans are rare but it is important to know how to react when you encounter one. There ARE bears in the neighborhood.Eastern Black Bear

Many years ago when we were living on the mountain, when Will was an infant in the early 1980’s, Judy and I had several encounters with bears one summer. We chased bear cubs off our deck several times a week. As you may know, bears have a keen sense of smell. They were attracted to Will’s diapers in addition to the garbage. We emptied our trash bins at the dumpster daily to keep them away.

These same three youngsters, a bit older, are pictured below taking a dip in the late Ted Cooper’s hot tub at the end of Brimstone.

Relaxing in a Hot TubUninvited Guests

My friend and colleague, Peter Farley, left the slider unlocked to his deck and one very large male came in his kitchen and decided not to wait for Pete to fix breakfast. All the cabinets and refrigerator were opened and all the contents were all over the kitchen and dining room floors. The mess took most of a day to clean up and the bear had to be trapped and relocated to West Virginia.

Judy Jumper from California, who has a house on the mountain, had the interior of her new Mercedes SUV torn up when a bear managed to open the door and crawl inside in search of goodies and snacks in the console.

Ever wonder why there are signs to lock and bear proof the dumpsters? In the Laurelwood Condo area one of our owners was a bit fuzzy a few years ago after a fun night of partying with friends and slid open the access panel before latches were installed and inches away was a black bear standing nose to nose, dining on last night’s appetizers. Adrenaline is a quick fix for a hangover.

These stories and cautionary tales about bears need to be taken seriously as they live and wander throughout our community both on the mountain and in the valley at Wintergreen.

The following excerpts are courtesy of the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries

A basic understanding of bear biology and implementing a few preventative measures will go a long way to helping make all encounters with bears positive.

Of the three bear species (black, brown, and polar bears) in North America, only the black bear lives in Virginia. Shy and secretive, the sighting of a bear is a rare treat for most Virginians. However, bears are found throughout most of the Commonwealth, and encounters between bears and people are increasing. Adult black bears are approximately 4 to 7 feet from nose to tail, and two to three feet high at the withers. Males are larger than females. Black bears have small eyes, rounded ears, a long snout, large non retractable claws, a large body, a short tail, and shaggy hair. In Virginia most black bears are true black in color unlike black bears found in more western states that can be shades of red, brown or blond.

Depending on the time of year, adult female black bears commonly weigh between 90 to 250 pounds. Males commonly weigh between 130 to 500 pounds. The largest known wild black bear was from North Carolina and weighed 880 pounds. The heaviest known female, from northeastern Minnesota, weighed 520 pounds. The American black bear is found only in North America. Black bears historically ranged over most of the forested regions of North America, and significant portions of northern Mexico. There are approximately 900,000 black bears in North America. Black bears reside in every province in Canada except for Prince Edward Isle, and in at least 40 of the 50 states in the US. In the eastern United States, black bear range is continuous throughout New England but becomes increasingly fragmented from the mid-Atlantic down through the Southeast.  

Incredibly adaptable, black bears occupy a greater range of habitats than any other bear in the world. Bear home ranges must include food, water, cover, denning sites and diverse habitat types. Although bears are thought to be a mature forest species, they often use a variety of habitat types. Bears may live up to 30 years in the wild. The oldest documented wild bear in Virginia was 26 years of age when it was killed. Black bears are generally solitary, except sows caring for cubs. Adult bears may be seen together during the summer breeding period and occasionally yearling siblings will remain together for a period of time. Bears may also gather at places with abundant food sources. Black bears are typically crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn), but can be active any time of day. Female black bears have smaller home ranges (1 to 50 square miles) than males (10 to 290 square miles). A male’s home range may overlap several female home ranges. Bears may move further in times of less food like early spring. Dispersing yearlings, especially males, looking for new home ranges may also travel a great distance.

Female black bears mature as early as three years old. Breeding occurs from mid-June to mid-July, but in the eastern deciduous forest, mating season can extend into August. Female black bears usually breed every other year. Cubs are born from early January to mid-February weighing ½ to ¾ lbs. Anywhere from 1-4 cubs are born at a time and are raised by their mother for about 1½ years. First-year cub mortality rates are about 20%, primarily due to predation (foxes, coyotes, dogs, bobcats, other bears) or abandonment by their mother. Adult bears do not have natural predators except humans.

When the mother is ready to breed again, she will send her yearlings to fend for themselves during the summer months when food is usually abundant. Always hungry, these yearling bears, particularly the males, will seek easy sources of food. The ability to access human related food sources can spell trouble for these bears.

Bears may feed up to 20 hours per day, accumulating fat (energy) prior to winter denning. An adult male can gain over 100 pounds in a few weeks when acorn production is heavy. Depending on weather and food conditions, black bears enter their winter dens between October and January. Bears will not eat, drink, urinate or defecate while denning. Bears are easily aroused and may be active during warm winter days. They emerge from their dens from mid-March to early May. In Virginia, most bears den in large, hollow trees. Other den types include fallen trees, rock cavities, and brush piles in timber cut areas, open ground nests, and man-made structures (culvert pipe).

Black bears have a very diverse diet. They consume herbaceous plant parts, woody plant parts, flower/nectar/ pollen, fruit, terrestrial insects, juvenile and small mammals, juvenile and adult amphibians, and carrion. Bears are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders, eating mostly plants in the spring, berries and insects in the summer, and nuts and berries in the fall. Carrion (dead animals) is often a part of a bear’s diet. Although not typically and an active predator, rare occurrences of livestock predation is reported each year.

Spring Foods

  • Grasses/Forbes
  • Insects/Larvae
  • Skunk Cabbage
  • Squaw Root

Summer/Fall Foods

  • Berries
  • Hard mast (Acorns, Other tree nuts)
  • Autumn Olive
  • Dogwood
  • Wild Grapes
  • Serviceberry
  • Mountain-ash
  • Hawthorn
  • Chokecherry
  • Pokeberry
  • Sassafras

From Linda Masterson Living with Bears: A Practical Guide to Bear Country.

There are many reasons we are seeing more bears this year. From a great article in one of our local papers, Waynesboro’s The News Virginian, GWNF Park Biologist Mark Gubler, said that this was an abnormal summer, with a spring freeze that delayed and/or damaged the blackberry, raspberry and other berries that are a critical food source for bears in late spring and early summer. “This sent the bears in search of alternate food,” said Gubler. “If you add that fact to an increased number of people visiting our area plus an increased number of bears, then there is a better chance of people and on bears coming into contact.” Bears are opportunity feeders. DO NOT FEED THE BEARS. How many times have you seen that sign?

What do you do if you have a close encounter with a bear?

The first rule is DO NOT RUN. Bear can easily out run a human. Your flight can trigger a prey response in the animal. Gubler advises to “MAKE THE BEAR AWARE of your presence by speaking in aloud assertive voice, and yelling or clapping your hands or making other noises. Try and back away slowly while making eye contact”. If you are hiking in a remote area around Wintergreen, I recommend that you wear bear bells and carry BEAR Spray, a strong cayenne pepper spray or a large caliber hand gun. (Just kidding about the gun, it only makes them angrier unless the first shot is perfect. You better be accurate and few people are.) Gubler says, “If a bear starts to come at you, scream, wave your arms, and throw rocks or sticks at it.” “Aim that bear spray at its eyes, nose or any soft tissue on the face,” he says. “In almost every instance, bears are going to want to flee. But, if it ever come to a struggle, fight with everything you’ve got.”  Out west, where there are big Grizzlies (a subspecies of the Brown bears) they used to say get against a log and cover the back of your neck with your hands and hope they take only a couple of swipes and then leave. Those Grizzlies and Brown Bears are far more aggressive and dangerous! Understand that our local bears have become “food conditioned”. You need to be “Bear Smart”. Make sure trash containers are closed and secured. Don’t leave temptations where bears can find them. Lock your doors and windows.

Be safe.

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