The Shenandoah National Park recently closed two trails because of reports that bears were getting too close to hikers. In Charlottesville, a bear was spotted outside a busy shopping center, and another turned up on the campus of James Madison University. These normally shy creatures who live on acorns and berries are taking unusual liberties with people.
Experts say black bears are rarely aggressive, preferring to run away from people. If they sense humans around them, mother bears may hide their cubs and climb trees to avoid contact, but this year some bears appear to be playing by different rules.
Erika Raskin, who lives in rural Albemarle County, was surprised this spring when her dog, Sullivan, began barking madly.
“I came downstairs and my husband yelled down, ‘What is it?' and I said, ‘It’s a bear on the front porch.' I mean literally I was like, ‘I think it’s a bear,’ because it had a bear nose. I’ve never seen one.”
The animal peered through a window, showing no fear of the dog, and returned on two successive nights. Raskin, who writes books at her home west of Charlottesville, was not afraid, but she did take steps to get rid of what probably attracted the bear - a large beehive attached to her house.
“All these honey bees were living up on the second floor, and we have tried to get rid of them, and I’d called beekeepers, and everybody was like, ‘Oh no. We don’t do second floors.’"
When the bear kept showing up, she tried again - finally finding a contractor willing to do the job.
“He climbed up there, and he removed 100,000 bees and 180 pounds of honey.”
Since then, there’s been no sign of the bear, and wildlife biologist Marcella Kelly is not surprised. She works at Virginia Tech’s Black Bear Research Center, and she knows what those animals like.
“They do have a sweet tooth. When the past bear biologist was trapping bears, they would bait their traps with donuts.”
And it’s that love of people food that seems to be driving bears closer to their human neighbors.
“Bears are in general very shy, but they’re probably also curious enough for sure to get into people’s garbage cans and things like that, and if it’s an easy meal - easier than looking for berries and things like that, those encounters might increase.”
So she advises those with bears in their neighborhoods to take down bird feeders and buy bear proof trash cans. If you encounter an animal, do not turn and run.
“Stand your ground. Make yourself big. Make loud noises. You can even throw things at it if you want to give the bear a negative experience with humans.”
At this time of year, she says, many of those wandering bears are teenagers - hungry, curious, but probably not dangerous.
“Adolescent bears would have been born almost a year and a half ago, so they’re going to be leaving their mothers, or the mothers are kicking them out, because the mothers are breeding again and getting ready to produce another litter, so you could have adolescent bears that are not quite as experienced in feeding themselves at this time.”
There is some debate about whether bears pose a risk to small pets. Might they actually kill a dog or cat? Tech’s Professor Kelly says bears do eat meat - but it’s not clear if they hunt other animals or simply consume roadkill and the remains of field dressed animals.
“We have found deer in the diet, but we don’t really know if that’s all from scavenging, or if they’re actively hunting.”
Which is why Tech will soon begin a study of predators in Appalachia - tagging coyotes, bobcats and bears, then using GPS to help them figure out where these animals go, and how they find the food they eat.