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Game official says bear sightings probably due to appetite, population

KEVIN CASTLE • May 1, 2007 at 12:30 PM

They have paws so big they could crush coconuts. Standing upright, some tower 7 to 10 feet tall. And right now, they're just looking for a nice meal - since they haven't eaten in months.

The valleys of Virginia and Tennessee are historically black bear country, a landscape rich with berries and other delicacies bears crave. However, since the berries they eat won't be ripe for another month or so, your garbage can will have to suffice.

"They're just coming out of hibernation, and they'll eat anything they can get their hands on, including any food they can sniff in the garbage can," said Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist Johnny Wills.

Encounters between man and beast used to be rare, but recent figures released by both states regarding the numbers of black bear legally harvested during designated hunting campaigns show that their numbers have grown to the point where chance encounters are diminishing.

VDGIF figures from the 2006-07 black bear harvest show record numbers recorded for Virginia, when 1,633 bears were tagged by hunters over the fall. The second-highest number of bears harvested in Tennessee was logged during the same time with 301. Seventeen of those were killed in Sullivan County.

Although a few bears were killed in the Southwest portion of Virginia, the majority of bears harvested during the last recording period were collected west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"Ten years ago, we didn't have nearly the number of complaints and sightings that we have these days," Wills said.

"We just opened this portion of Virginia up for bear harvesting five years ago because of the population, and every year harvest numbers go up. If you have a stout bear population, it is indicative of a healthy ecosystem surrounding you, so that is a good sign.

"Sure, seeing a bear from time to time is exciting and, in a sense, it makes you feel good to know that nature is still at work, but things that we can manage can make these encounters less frequent."

Most of the time when a black bear wanders into places where people live, it's because homeowners aren't properly disposing of garbage or aren't keeping areas that could be accessed by a bear properly secured.

Females have a territory range of up to 51 square miles, and males roam more than 293 square miles, but they are easily scared off in most cases.

"We encourage people to bang on pots and pans, just anything that will make a loud noise, but never try to run after or away from the bear," said Wills.

"They are truly shy by nature, but you have had cases where a black bear can become aggressive, and it is usually to defend a cub, in a female's case, or he is wanting to get away from you and will use force to do it.

"In most cases in late spring when a bear might come onto your front porch and pick in the garbage can, they are just looking to replenish some of that fat they have burned off during the hibernation process, and once they're full, they'll move on."

In a case where a bear makes more than one appearance, game officials are called in to try and capture the animal with either a culvert trap where bait is used and the bear is trapped inside, or a snare rope trap is employed to snag the bear's leg.

"People need to understand that game wardens cannot come at a moment's notice, and secondly, bears are hard to trap," Wills said.

"On the occasion that we are able to catch the bear, which is unpleasant for them, we make it even more unpleasant by spraying them with pepper spray and firing rubber bullets at them to keep them running scared. The purpose is to break them of the habit of coming to an occupied dwelling."

The following are suggestions the VDGIF offers to help prevent bear encounters on your property:

•Outdoor grills must be stored away in a garage, and grease drippings must be burnt off.

•Secure garbage set aside for pick up in an animal-proof trash container.

•Do not burn or bury garbage.

•Hang bird feeders as high as possible.

•Once you spot a bear, contact your local sheriff's department so a game warden can be dispatched to evaluate the case.

The game agency also has tips to consider if you happen to encounter a bear:

•Stay calm. If you see a bear and it has not seen you, calmly leave the area. As you move away, make noise to let the bear discover your presence.

•Stop. Back away slowly while facing the bear. Avoid direct eye contact, as bears may perceive this as a threat.

•Give the bear plenty of room to escape. Bears rarely attack people unless they feel threatened or provoked.

•Do not run. If on a trail, step off the trail on the downhill side and slowly leave the area. Do not run or make any sudden movements. Running could prompt the bear to give chase, and you cannot outrun a bear.

•Speak softly. This may reassure the bear that you mean it no harm. Try not to show fear.

•Fight back. If a black bear attacks you, fight back. Black bears have been driven away when people have fought back with rocks, sticks, binoculars and even their bare hands.

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