Last week, while driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a black bear crossed my path. He came lumbering up out of the ditch onto the road ahead. He was oblivious to the fact that it was peak tourist season, the weekend when everyone and their mother comes out to see the changing of the leaves. At first, I thought the youngster was a large Rottweiler. It took me a moment to compute what I was really seeing. He appeared like an apparition and came to a dead stop on the center line of the road. Our eyes met for a moment. Then as quickly as he had appeared, he scaled the sheer rock cliff in front of him and was gone.
Because of his size, I figured he was probably a yearling cub. I waited a while for Mama Bear to appear, much to the chagrin of those in the cars behind me, but she was nowhere to be seen. Although the cub was old enough to be weaned, he certainly didn’t seem ready to be on his own. So, I made my way to the nearest ranger station to report in. I was informed that the mother was indeed around and had three more cubs this year. Since this is highly unusual, I wondered why the ranger didn’t know there may be more than one mother bear in the area. Black bears wouldn’t typically birth young every year. Then, I realized he might be deliberately leaving that information out. Who could blame him? We humans can be real nuisances for bears.
First and foremost, we perpetuate the myth that all bears are vicious, frightening creatures, often depicting them standing on hind legs, teeth bared on the attack. The truth about black bears is they are only dangerous when cornered or protecting their young. We should be empathetic to this, since we too can be dangerous if put in the same situation. The best defense against a black bear is distance and noise. When I hike, I like to carry a couple of disposable pie pans or something that will make a racket when clapped together. Anything noisy, even yelling and waving your arms, will send a black bear packing most of the time. They certainly don’t warrant all the fear mongering.
Of course, one cannot forget that we have encroached on huge tracts of the black bear’s territory, cutting down forests at an alarming rate, and using new technology to build in areas previously considered uninhabitable. When we squeeze the bears from their homes each year, we should not be surprised when they start showing up in our towns and camp grounds searching for food. We made our beds, and now we have to make like Goldie Locks and lie in them. Rather than calling the bears a nuisance, making excuses to shoot them, perhaps we should learn to coexist. It’s embarrassing to know that black bears would live into their thirties in the wild, but most are shot and killed before they reach ten.
They really aren’t much different from Rottweilers, just another misunderstood animal whose unfortunate run-ins with humans give them a bad wrap. I’ll admit both species can be fairly intimidating, and some may even be aggressive if provoked, but most just want to be left alone to forage and eat all day. Both species just need people to be educated on how to interact with them safely.
Black bears certainly prefer uninhabited areas of deep forests to human's back yards, but they must roam large distances looking for food. Although, they instinctively fatten up preparing to hibernate each year, not all bears hibernate all winter. Those in Virginia may only sleep lightly for part of the season due to the mild weather. Regardless of the climate however, they will still spend the majority of their time from spring until late fall stuffing their faces with as much fat, rich carbohydrates, and proteins as they can find.
Due to the need for high calorie foods, black bears are naturally susceptible to becoming beggars, again like some Rottweilers I know. Once they get their first taste of the high sugar, high fat foods we eat, it’s hard to turn them back to the same old diet of acorns, fruits, berries, and the occasional carrion. This is why it is so important to take the “Do Not Feed the Animals” signs seriously. But, the signs don’t just mean not to reach your hand out to a wild animal and coax it to eat. It means, being responsible hikers, campers, and wildlife observers.
“Do Not Feed the Animals” also means do not leave your waste lying around. Confine your picnicking to public areas with lots of people, and clean up your mess. Wrap leftovers well, and take them home with you. Don’t leave partially eaten food items in any unlocked trash can for the next bear to forage in, and certainly don’t leave them lying on the ground for others to clean up. By all means, learn how to wrap foods properly and how to store them safely if you plan to hike and camp with them. Be particularly vigilant in the months leading up to winter.
It seems clear we already know how to be nuisances. Perhaps it’s time we clean up our act. Any forestry service personnel or park ranger worth their salt will be happy to answer questions on how to prevent run-ins with bears in your area, and how you can enjoy seeing a wild bear do what a wild bear should be doing, scaling cliffs and trees, and foraging in thickets for food. Wildlife Management personnel can also be reached to assist you with any bear problems in your area, including safe relocations. By contacting them, you can prevent bears from being shot unnecessarily. Please consider doing your part to change the way we look at these magnificent creatures, and join the many native peoples around the world who see bears as a symbol of strength and power, something to be respected and honored, not something to be conquered and feared.