In Waynesboro and the surrounding areas, there have been social media posts and reports of black bear sightings.
A local wildlife expert says, “If you live in Virginia, you live in bear country.” She gave advice for people to avoid black bear contact and what to do if people come one-on-one with a bear.
Black bears are common throughout Virginia. The state’s estimated bear population stands at 17,000, wildlife officials say.
Black bears are typically shy and avoid humans.
“While there certainly can be fluctuations in numbers of animals and activities, most of the time when we hear of ‘more’ of a certain animals’ activity, it’s really because people are more active outdoors and are crossing paths with their wild neighbors,” said Amanda Nicholson, director of outreach at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. “It’s also easier than ever to share photos and videos of wildlife. But that doesn’t always mean there are more of one particular animal.”
In the spring and early summer, bears are out looking for food. With the pretty weather, it happens that people can be more active, too.
“With more people hiking, camping, and having outdoor cookouts, there is an increased chance of running into bear neighbors,” Nicholson said.
When bears visit a residential area, it’s sometimes because the residents accidentally attracted them.
People can inadvertently attract bears when they leave food out or don’t lock up their trash cans. Bears also may find that bird feeders are an attractive source of food.
“Bears are large omnivores and they need a lot of calories,” Nicholson said. “In a very natural setting, they spend a lot of time foraging — eating berries, nuts, seeds, insects and more. When bear territories overlap with human habitats, bears usually then have access to calories that are a lot easier to obtain.”
She related the bears’ habits to human tendencies.
“It’s much faster to knock over a trash can and eat leftover pizza than it is to visit a variety of bushes, trees and logs to find those calories,” Nicholson said. “It’s a habit we as humans can likely identify with. Sometimes you go to the store or farmers market and purchase ingredients to make a great home-cooked meal; sometimes you go through the drive-through because it’s so much easier.”
To try to avoid bears, people can secure trash cans or keep them in a garage or shed until the morning of trash pickup. Other tips are to eliminate bird feeders and never intentionally feed a bear.
“Bears get quite used to knowing where food sources are, so if they are successful in your yard or campsite, they’ll keep coming back,” Nicholson said. “These bears can turn into ‘problem’ bears, but the real problem is that people have essentially trained them to come into close contact with humans, looking for food.”
What can people do if they come in contact with a bear?
First, don’t panic. Keep a safe distance from the bear. Never approach or try to run — bears are faster than people. Next, if the bear hasn’t spotted you, calmly leave the area while making a little noise so that the bear hears you, but is not startled.
If the bear has seen you, give it a large escape path and slowly back away while facing the bear. If on a trail, step off on the downhill side and slowly leave, Nicholson recommended.
For more information from the Wildlife Center of Virginia, visit wildlifecenter.org/bears-neighbors.