In Some Places (Not All), More Bear Encounters

Sep 5, 2016

Recent news reports about bears may give the impression that encounters between humans and bears are increasing in number. Whatever the case may be, humans bear a responsibility in that mix, as WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

Harrisonburg resident Ben Bowman keeps one souvenir from a hike this summer in his pocket: his cell phone, marked by the tooth of a hungry bear.

It was late July, and Bowman and his hiker friends had taken off their shoes and were sitting down to eat their lunch on Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park. They’d heard from other hikers about a nearby bear, but figured it would leave them alone -- until its nose popped around a rock just a few feet away. Bowman and his friends grabbed what food they could and moved away quickly.

BEN BOWMAN: We were up on some rocks a ways away trying to make noise, and it was just sniffing around, and it found that my backpack still had two apples and a lid with some peanut butter on it. I didn't have shoes on cause I didn't think to grab those, so I was really hoping it wouldn't grab a shoe and take off.

A video from another hiker shows the skinny bear calmly eating from Bowman’s ripped-open backpack, his cell phone on the ground beside it.

[Video audio of BOWMAN: Just give him space.]

Gauging the broader human population’s comfort level with bear encounters is difficult, says David Kocka, a wildlife biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, or DGIF.

DAVID KOCKA: It's like measuring jello.

He calls it “cultural carrying capacity.”

KOCKA: We could carry a lot more bears or deer on the landscape but people won't tolerate it because of these interactions. In the deer world, when you can't drive in the evenings to get your kids to the soccer game without whacking one with your vehicle, your tolerance is probably exceeded in terms of the number of deer on the landscape. Same sort of scenario with bears getting in your trash. It's a very difficult thing to measure that and to judge where the biggest part of that bell curve lies in terms of the general population.

One indicator of bear activity -- or maybe the general public’s perceptions about bear activity -- could be the number of calls to the DGIF bear helpline. In the counties that Kocka serves, the number of calls is up this year, to varying degrees.

For example, the average number of bear helpline calls over the previous 7 years in Greene County was just under 18 per year; this year so far that number is 19. Madison County’s 7-year average was just 9 calls per year; so far this year, 10.

The jump is more significant in nearby counties: Rappahannock’s 7-year average was under 9 calls to the bear helpline; this year so far has seen 21. Page County’s average was 17 calls; this year so far, 28. Rockingham’s average was 29, but this year? 61. Albemarle County takes the cake, though, jumping from an average of 37 to 91 calls this year.

DGIF research suggests that the increase in such reports is because 2015 was a down year for natural bear food like fruits, berries, and acorns. Black Bear Project Leader Jaime Sajecki said that DGIF workers came across numerous 16-month-old bears this spring that should have weighed at least 50 pounds but were only 8-12 pounds; bears this year may be hungrier than usual.

Most helpline calls were of the lowest priority for DGIF response, such as when people called to report seeing a bear at a bird feeder or trash can. Many of the other calls, according to Sajecki, had progressed to a higher priority level because people or neighborhoods hadn’t secured trash or other food sources.

And that’s a point that Sajecki and Kocka stress again and again: people must do their part to peacefully coexist with bears.

That responsibility also includes keeping dogs out of the mix.

KOCKA: Bears and dogs don’t get along. There's a history there that predates all of us. A female bear might come by with cubs and have nothing to want to do with me, but a little yappy dog might go out there and initiate her to respond, and she's going to turn and maybe chase that dog, or grab it, or do whatever. This idea that the dog saved my life is really a misnomer.

One encounter between a mother bear and a hiker’s dog this summer at Shenandoah National Park near Front Royal -- the dog later died from its injuries -- prompted one of several recent trail closures due to bear incidents.

Kocka says that another common misperception involves how to respond to a black bear. With Virginia’s black bears, not making eye contact is a big mistake.

KOCKA: That’s totally wrong. You're basically then -- you're submitting yourself to that bear, and you don't do that with black bears. You do it with grizzlies; that's totally different. But with black bears, you make a stance. You make yourself big. If that bear decides he's going to eat your lunch for you, you put up a fight. That's the bottom line with black bears.

For hiker Ben Bowman, having his lunch stolen wasn’t too traumatic.

BOWMAN: Stuff was strewn all around, and it smelled like wet dog and got real dirty, but maybe five minutes later it ate the food and walked away.