Black bears forage for food over miles of territory. As Virginia’s bear population rises and humans develop more of the bruin’s habitat, bears are taking advantage of food resources made available in the trash cans, compost piles, bird feeders, and pet dishes found in residential areas.
Bear sightings are becoming routine across the commonwealth. With bears living in 90 of Virginia’s 95 counties, most suburban and rural residents can assume they are in bear country. Problems occur when bears come to expect food in residential areas.
People may unknowingly feed bears without realizing that their actions often result in negative consequences for the bears. Some bears may have to be destroyed if they habituate to humans and repeatedly visit populated areas.
“Feeding bears is illegal in Virginia,” said James Parkhurst, associate professor and wildlife Extension specialist in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, who also warns against interacting with bears.
“If you see a bear in your neighborhood, leave it alone. Don’t chase or corner it,” he said. “Bears typically avoid humans. Waving your arms and making loud noises often will be sufficient to send it away, unless it is already a habituated bear.”
“If the bear shows no fear and doesn’t leave, call the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to handle the situation,” Parkhurst added.
To discourage visits from bears and avoid wildlife conflicts, Parkhurst recommends the following steps.
- Secure your garbage: store garbage indoors, in a shed, or in a bear-proof container.
- Put trash cans out on the morning of your scheduled pickup, not the night before.
- Do not leave pet food outdoors. Feed pets only what they will eat in a single feeding or feed them indoors. Remove the food bowl soon after pets finish.
- Remove bird feeders. Bears consume seeds and nuts found in the wild, so bird feeders are a favored target for bears.
- Do not put meat scraps or any other strong-smelling food in a compost pile. Consider an enclosed compost bin.
- Remove ripe fruit from fruit trees and surrounding grounds.
- Make sure your neighbors take similar steps to prevent bear problems.
Bears are quick and powerful. They may become aggressive when they are surprised or defending cubs, and will damage property in their pursuit of food. If food sources are removed, bears will usually leave the area and seek food elsewhere.
More information is available on the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website Living With Black Bears in Virginia (which includes a 20-minute video) and in the Virginia Cooperative Extension publication Managing Wildlife Damage: Black Bears (Ursus americanus).