Black Bears and the Goldilocks Principle: How Many Is Just Right?

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Once upon a time, black bears vanished in Virginia. Though thousands roamed here in pre-colonial times, by the 1900s the Commonwealth’s land had been mostly clear-cut for farming, and as bears found little natural habitat and themselves on the menu, they disappeared. The last bear of that era spotted east of the Blue Ridge mountains was in Albemarle County in 1910. 

Over the next century, agriculture receded and forests began to regrow, the 200,000-acre Shenandoah National Park (SNP) was established, hunting restrictions were imposed, and black bears gradually returned. The first pair in the SNP reappeared in 1937, and by the 1950s more than a thousand inhabited 35 counties in the west and southeast. The population eventually swelled to today’s 17,000 animals statewide, making themselves at home in every county except a few along the eastern seaboard. 

Now the bears face a new challenge, because although they are still beloved by many Virginians as native wildlife, not everyone wants bears in their back yard.

“There are more bears on the landscape now than we’ve probably had since the settlement of Virginia, and it’s the same in states around us—North Carolina, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey,” said David Kocka, district biologist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF). “At the same time, lots more people are moving into our area, so these are two trains on a collision course.”

Jaime Sajecki, black bear project leader at the Va. Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Submitted photo.

Food fight

The majority of human-bear interactions resemble more of a food fight than a train wreck. Gregg Korbon’s first attempt at beekeeping in the field behind his house east of Crozet only lasted a week before the hives were wiped out by a bear. “Most people think they are after the honey,” he said, “but they really want the baby bees, called the ‘brood.’ The bear knocked over the hives and tore out the frames to get to them.” A second attempt with an electric fence fared no better, as the bear simply reached through the fence, absorbing the shock. “They’re very persistent,” said Korbon, who now has a successful hive surrounded by a stronger fence. “You just have to make it too much trouble.”

David Kocka, district biologist for the Va. Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

While Korbon didn’t call the DGIF for help, many citizens do. Almost 2,000 complaints about nuisance activity by bears were logged by the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline in 2017, up 20 percent from the prior year. Jaime Sajecki, DGIF black bear project leader, pointed to a big part of the problem. “In the last eight years, three-quarters of the [nuisance] calls have a feeding component—‘a bear was getting into my trash can or my bird feeder,’” she said. “Many of those are preventable.”

When voracious bears emerge from their winter’s snooze in April before their natural forest diet has ripened, they head for the pickings that they can smell up to a mile away: trays of seeds and suet hanging within easy reach, and bins full of kitchen scraps lined up on the streets like a buffet. County residents complain of damage to feeders and grills, the mess of overturned trash cans, and the destruction of beehives and compost piles, while farmers and orchard and vineyard owners report crop losses.

Buddy Clark, owner of Tucked Away Farm in White Hall, plants 80 acres of corn to feed his dairy herd and estimates he loses up to a dozen acres per year to the bears. “They come in and eat the ears and flatten the stalks so the harvester can’t pick them up,” he said. After 48 years in the dairy business, Clark has seen bear problems increase in recent years. “Fifteen or twenty years ago bear damage was unusual, but now it’s commonplace because the population is really expanding.”

Clark’s perception reflects reality. After its gradual reboot in the 1900s, the black bear population has warmed to Virginia’s now-ideal habitat, increasing by 9 percent annually since 2001. The most densely populated regions are near the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and along the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. 

Ed Clark, who founded the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro in 1982. Submitted photo.

In Rockingham County, just northwest of Albemarle, a 2001 study calculated 3.5 bears per square mile. “We call Shenandoah National Park the ‘bear nursery’ because they’re not hunted there, so they are very numerous,” said Kocka, the district biologist responsible for Rockingham and five other bear-rich counties in or near the SNP. “They slip down into the agricultural areas that border the park to raid the crops and then retreat back into the park.” 

Beyond food-related conflicts, bears do occasionally injure people, though no person has ever been killed by one in Virginia. “There have been cases where people have been slapped or bitten by a bear,” said Ed Clark, founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, a nationally known conservation and treatment facility in Waynesboro, currently caring for eight orphaned or injured black bear cubs. “Almost all of those cases involved a person with a dog, off the leash, that went after some cubs in the woods, and the mama came out to defend them.” 

As a testament to Kocka’s predicted ‘collision course,’ complaints to the DGIF Helpline include a growing number of calls from people merely sighting a bear, even from a distance in the woods. Vehicle-bear accidents are also on the upswing, with more than 200 bears killed by cars in the last ten years. As both bear and human populations steadily increase and the development of rural land continues apace, the potential for human-bear interactions can only rise.

Tipping point

The recent jump in citizen concerns has left the DGIF, the only agency in the state empowered to regulate all things bear—from protecting them to “harvesting” (hunting) them—at a crossroads. After decades spent encouraging the rebuilding of the black bear population via species protection and forest conservation and establishing a Black Bear Management Plan that aims to stabilize the number of bears living in Virginia, the agency suddenly faces a vocal minority of residents unhappy about bear damage on their private land.

“To make the bear management plan, we surveyed all kinds of stakeholders,” said Sajecki, “and we felt like we had met the goals we’d set in the plan. But in the last couple of years there has been tremendous pressure from community groups and organizations like the Farm Bureau, basically saying there are too many bears here.” In response, the DGIF reversed course and considered proposals last spring to reduce the population by as much as 25 percent in high bear-density areas along the Blue Ridge. For the agency, the most efficient tool for achieving a reduction is to expand the hunting season.

A female and her cubs (photographed through a screen) as they settle in for a snack of fresh peanuts at a feeder in Grayrock. Photo: Clover Carroll.

Public reaction to the proposal was intense as more than 2000 individuals and organizations submitted comments, three-quarters of which opposed the 25 percent target as being too high. The DGIF compromised, settling on a uniform 14 percent reduction over five years, and opened a new 3-day bear hunting season in early October of 2017 for 36 counties to the west and northeast of the Blue Ridge. As with all forms of bear hunting (archery, muzzleloader, and firearms with and without dogs), the limit per hunter in Virginia is one bear per season.

The expanded harvest was deemed a success. The 2017-18 season saw a 17 percent increase in bears harvested state-wide, although how that translates into reductions within individual counties is less clear because bear populations by county are hard to estimate. Sajecki advises patience and caution in weighing the results. “It took almost a hundred years to get the populations up to where they are now,” she said. “Because they are incredibly slow reproducers, bears bounce back so slowly that we have to be really conservative in how we make changes. It’s easy to overdo it in either direction.”

A black bear cub plays in a specially designed bear enclosure at the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.
Submitted photo.

In tandem with the expanded hunting opportunities, farmers like Buddy Clark also encourage a shift in the season’s timing. “Bear hunting season begins so late that all of the big bears that do the most damage are already denned up by the time the season begins,” he said. Farmers can request a permit to shoot a bear causing damage to crops, but Clark says that’s unrealistic for him. “They do all their damage at night, way out in the cornfield,” he said. “Honestly, most farmers don’t have time to sit around looking for bears.”

Though the 3-day hunting season was “spectacular,” said Richard Sprinkle, president of the Virginia Bear Hunters Association, the group had actually fought to shrink the original 25 percent reduction target. “That figure did not come from the game department, it came out of the clear blue,” said Sprinkle. “Look, if a bear comes into a subdivision and walks through five people’s yards, you’ve got five people on the phone complaining, but that’s not science. The bear population is a fluid thing. It takes five years to develop a trend, so we have to wait and see the longer term effects, and be careful not to over-harvest now.” 

Ed Clark of the Wildlife Center was keenly disappointed with the reduction plan, calling it a knee-jerk reaction to the increase in bear nuisance calls. “[Expanding the hunting season] had nothing to do with nature,” he said. To Clark, reducing the population in an indiscriminate way (via hunting) won’t solve the problem; instead, he believes the key lies in teaching people to change their behavior. “You can reduce the population by 95 percent if you want to, but if you don’t remove those nuisance attractants, the bears that are left will still be going after the same easy food sources.” 

Smarter than your average bear

Every knowledgeable party—whether biologist, hunter, conservationist, or farmer—agrees that the bear vs. human problem would be vastly improved by a better-educated public. Bears are a natural part of the wildlife landscape in Virginia, and most of the time, they are simply acting like bears.

“I would say they were lazy if they weren’t so smart,” said Sajecki. “Their whole mission in life is to use the least amount of energy to get the most amount of calories.”

“Baby bears are born in January and they stay with the mother until the spring of year two,” said Ed Clark. “After that they’re called yearlings and they’re on their own. So you’ve got all these yearling bears out there that no longer have any guidance or discipline. Imagine dumping off a bunch of teenagers with no supervision.”

These “teenage” bears, along with hungry moms emerging from winter dens, find little in the way of soft mast like fruit and berries in April and May, so they follow their noses to the nearest populated area for a meal. In the fall, bears need to bulk up ahead of the winter months and rely primarily on acorns to double their weight, and crops of apples and corn also become a draw. The availability (or lack) of their natural food sources is a big driver of bear behavior vis-à-vis humans.

“A problem that occurred seven or eight years ago was the total collapse of the fall acorn crop because of a late frost on the oak trees,” said Ed Clark. “So the main food source for bears going into the winter was missing, and the hungry bears came down out of the woods looking for food. And little bears learn what to eat from their mothers, and they don’t forget, so then you have a habit.”

Orchard Acres resident Susan Dunlap knew she was taking a risk putting out her feeder in May, especially after bears had swiped one the year before, but she enjoys the visiting birds. “I heard a limb breaking, and looked out to find that the bear had grabbed the feeder and yanked it, tearing down half the tree as well,” she said. “The bear also pulled up several large stepping stones to get at the ants.” Dunlap has retired the feeder for now, but is frustrated by the bear’s looming presence. “It’s taking away one of my favorite things, birdwatching, and it makes me feel uncomfortable in my own back yard.”

With both memory and longevity on their side, black bears are hard to beat. “What many people don’t understand is that after a bear gets to be about a year or so old, there’s almost no mortality factor,” said Kocka. “They have no predators except humans, and they can live for 30 years in the wild. They have a tremendous intelligence and memory—second only to primates—and an innate homing ability over long distances, so once they learn a behavior in a prime location they’ll keep coming back.”

Perhaps because of their sweet, storybook faces and fuzzy fur, most people are not afraid of black bears, even as the creatures destroy feeders and trash cans right outside the door. A group of bears is sometimes called a “sleuth,” or a “sloth,” though they are not slow. Weighing in at several hundred pounds and topping six feet tall when standing, they can nonetheless out-run and out-climb a human, and their large, curved claws tear through tree bark like paper. They are omnivorous, consuming plants, berries, insects, nuts, amphibians, carrion, and sometimes small mammals such as deer fawns. 

On the other hand, some black bear “facts” are mostly myth. They stand on hind legs not as a prelude to an attack, but to catch a scent on the air. Unlike their portrayal in movies, they do not growl to threaten, nor are they furiously protective of their cubs. They see as well as humans, and scent far better than bloodhounds. If you’ve heard that black bears can’t run downhill, don’t count on it.

Bear in mind

One fact often overlooked by those who intend to feed birds but end up feeding bears: It’s a Class 3 misdemeanor. “It’s illegal to directly or indirectly feed a bear,” said Kocka. “If your activity is causing a problem, we can have one of our officers tell you to put your [trash or feeders] away, and if you don’t comply you can get a written warning or a citation.” Beyond their own liability, residents should consider the wellbeing of other neighbors, not to mention that of the bears themselves.

Jaime Sajecki, DGIF bear project leader, comforts an orphaned black bear cub. Submitted photo.

“When you continue to knowingly feed bears, then it’s not just about you, it becomes a community issue, a safety issue for those in your neighborhood,” said Sajecki. “It also becomes a bear issue, because if the bear becomes used to your food source and develops aggressive behaviors toward people, then we may have to come in and kill the bear.”

Wildlife experts are frustrated by citizens’ choices regarding wild animals, particularly when those choices have predictable consequences. “The reluctance to make a change [like removing a bird feeder in the spring] is sort of baffling to me,” said Sajecki. “When you live in a city, you don’t leave your purse out on the front step, do you? You take natural precautions. It’s the same thing here, for the same reasons.”

Ed Clark of the Wildlife Center agrees. “People move from the city to a rural part of the county and think they can select the wildlife they prefer as if it’s a catalog,” he said. “They’d like deer but not bears, opossums but not skunks—they say it’s their land and they shouldn’t have to encounter bears. Well, that’s like saying it’s raining but I shouldn’t have to get wet. It’s foolish to stand out there ranting at the sky.”

As the DGIF walks a tightrope between competing interests, Sajecki takes the long view. “Some people think bears should be treated as a nuisance species like coyotes and just eliminated, but the majority of people we surveyed do value wildlife on the landscape,” she said. “The more people understand about bears, the better.” Mostly, she hopes to preserve for the public the unique spot that black bears occupy in the Virginia wildlife landscape. 

“I want them to keep their magic.”   

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