Bears where?

Bear populations have migrated from the mountains to the Piedmont region. 

For more than 20 years, John Storey has traveled up and down Clark Mountain Road but a few weeks ago he saw something unusual crossing in front of him. The Rapidan resident was stunned by the sight of an adult black bear sauntering across the road just about a half mile from his home.

“It took a minute to register,” said Storey. “I’ve lived here over 20 years and have never seen a bear. Sure, I’ve seen them from a distance up in the Shenandoah National Park but not here live in technicolor.”

A few miles down the road, Jack Strawther noted that 2018 marked the first time bears were killed on the 1,600-acre property that he manages. The Unionville property has always had a significant number of hunters and bountiful harvests of deer and turkey. Game cameras showed the animals’ presence and hunters were able to capture two during the 2018-2019 season.

“This property has been hunted for 30 years and last year was the first time anyone has shot a bear,” said Strawther. “There was also another young bear that was hit on the corner of Route 20 and Clifton Road last year.”

David Kocka a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) explained several possible reasons for the increased number of sightings in the area.

“The number of black bear in the state of Virginia has remained stable since the 1970s,” said Kocka. “The state’s population isn’t changing, but they have moved. Thirty years ago, the population was in the mountains and west, but they have moved into the Piedmont. Bears have a much larger home range than deer or turkey. They are solitary animals and other than during mating season [in the summer] they keep to themselves. A female will travel with her cubs but once weaned they go off on their own. A young male often will wander to find a territory of his own. Bears are driven by their stomachs; especially during late summer and fall they travel to find food. Acorns are a favorite food, especially from white oak trees. Last year, the acorn crop was poor, so bears had to travel farther searching for food.”

VDGIF keeps records of the number of black bear hunted and killed each year. This year the [2019-2020] season begins with archery running from Oct. 5 through Nov. 15, muzzleloader season follows from Nov. 9 through Nov. 15 and firearms bear season runs from Nov. 25 through Jan. 4, 2020. Several counties have a short early firearms season from Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, although Orange County does not.

In 2018, 2,715 bear were harvested in Virginia, slightly down from 2017 when 2,860 were legally taken. In Orange County, seven bears were harvested in 2018, up from two the previous year. Neighboring Culpeper and Madison counties show increased numbers for 2018. Culpeper increased from nine to 30 and Madison saw a similar increase, going from 78 to 102 last season.

Angie Bonner, an animal control officer with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, said the department handles about two or three calls annually that involve black bears.

“This year we’ve had three,” said Bonner. “One got hit by a car but got up and walked away, one in someone’s yard and another spotted in town.”

Both Kocka and Bonner caution residents to leave the animals alone.

“Bears keep to themselves and generally avoid human contact,” said Kocka. “Bears only come close when they find easy food sources, like bird feeders, pet food or garbage cans. When their natural food sources are unavailable, they will start foraging closer to where people live looking for an easy meal. The best way to keep them from coming too close is to make sure no pet food or garbage is left out unsecured. Feeding bears is illegal; don’t feed the bears.”

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