In Virginia, black bears are most active from the first of April to the first of November, during all times of the day.
While they may be interesting to view from a distance, central Virginians have encountered real problems with black bears when they are in search of food in their backyards.
Earlier this month, the Bedford Central Library brought in Dan Lovelace, a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, to share information about the behaviors and biology of black bears, as well as tips on what to do if residents encounter one.
“If you’re anywhere in Virginia now, you can say you’re pretty much in bear country,” he said. There are about 17,000 bears across the state.
A misconception is bears go into hibernation. Lovelace said it’s more like a “slumber.”
In Virginia, bear dens will exist in the cavities of larger trees like chestnut, oak and poplar that are more than 20 inches in diameter.
He said bears used to be found in the forest or up near the Peaks of Otter, but now they can be found right in town.
“So you never know what their habitat might be or what they’re finding. As long as they can find food and water, then they don’t have to travel very far to find that,” he said. “With the habitat we have across Bedford and across Virginia, generally their ranges can be smaller.”
A male black bear can travel up to 7 miles to find food, but if acorns are not as abundant as in years previous, the bear can travel up to 30 miles in search of food.
Sometimes bears will get into hot tubs or insulation because they mistake it for an ant hive. Insulation produces formic acid when the formaldehyde breaks down, making them smell like ant colonies, which bears love.
To manage bear populations, hunting is the primary tool, Lovelace said.
“We’ve also seen over time the increase in calls about bears because now the interactions between bears and people have increased as the number of bears increase,” he said.
Statewide, the most calls — about 85% — are about bears getting into trash, followed by problems with bears getting into bird feeders and, thirdly, bear sightings or other property damage caused by bears.
Lovelace cautioned against feeding bears and said doing so is illegal.
Residential bear problems may occur at any time of the year but are more common when natural food supplies are limited, usually in the spring or when the natural nut and berry production is low.
Veronica Jackson, a Bedford County resident, said she hasn’t had any issues yet with bears but recently moved to the area from a large city and wanted to be prepared.
She said a large forest surrounds her backyard and she wouldn’t be surprised if there might be bears there.
“So I need to be informed about the environment that I’ve moved into and I’m always planning ahead,” she said.
Lovelace said to tightly secure any food sources left outside such as garbage cans and to take bird feeders inside from April until November.
He also said residents can keep bears wild by keeping garbage inside until the morning it is scheduled to be picked up, not leaving any food outside overnight, cleaning grills often, installing electric fencing and even using paintball guns to shoot at the bears, which will just scare them off and won’t cause any harm to their hides.
“Bears are very smart, they’re very intelligent and they remember where things are,” Lovelace said.
He said a bear may find food in one area, move on with its travels for two weeks and return to the original place looking for food. In the event a resident sees a bear, he said to watch from a distance or from inside.
But if they were to come in close contact with a black bear, to back away slowly and remember bears have a natural distrust of humans and will run when given a safe escape route.
He advised people to keep their pets away from bears in trees.
If a bear charges, fight back with anything including sticks, rocks, a handbag, a knife or even by kicking and punching. Ultimately, bear encounters resulting in injury are extremely rare, Lovelace said, and the way humans behave in an encounter with a bear will directly influence the outcome.
He reminded people to hike in groups of two or more people and keep dogs leashed. He also said not to run away from a bear or try to approach one and to carry bear pepper spray.