02 May 2012
Black bears, the only species of bear in Virginia, are not one would expect of a bear. Ask Jaime Sajecki, the Project Leader of the Black Bear Project for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). She points out that many have a vision of bears similar to those we see on TV or in the movies. Many envision a terrifying 750 pounds worth of carnivorous mammal, rising up on its hind legs in an attack stance, claws poised, roaring at its potential prey. This is a closer description of the Brown or Grizzly bear. Virginia’s bears are more mischievous, a little shy and resemble Gentle Ben or the frolicsome Winnie the Pooh.
Sajecki came to Lake Monticello at the invitation of the Wildlife Committee (on April 25) to speak to residents about bears. Forty people turned out to listen to her presentation and afterward had not only learned more about bears but had some very positive comments.
Sajecki, who has worked with the black bear population in Northern California on Indian reservations, stated they are the most interesting animal she has ever encountered.
“Male bears are known as boars and can weigh anywhere from 200-500 lbs. though there has been one bear recorded at 740 lbs. The females, known as sows, average anywhere from 100-250 lbs. and possibly 350 lbs, at the most,” said Sajecki. She added that these bears have non-retractable claws, climb trees, are nearsighted, yet can see in color and have a keen sense of smell and hearing. They are also omnivores and 75 percent of their diet is vegetarian, nuts, fruits, grasses and 25 percent of their proteins come from insects, such as aunts and Yellow Jackets and also anything dead, like small rodents. “Bears are opportunistic and will eat almost anything,” she said.
“When a bear is standing this is not an aggressive posture, he simply wants to get a better view or smell or taste,” she added.
She further stated that bears are solitary and are most active during the day between dawn and dusk. They also leave their dens in spring and summer in search of food. They can forage for food for up to 20 hours. They will bulk up for hibernation which lasts about five months.
“They do not hibernate like other hibernating animals,” she said. “Their temperature drops between 9-14 degrees and they do not eat, drink, urinate or defecate. Respiration and heart rate also decrease. They may lose up to 30 percent of their body weight. They can also be awakened more easily unlike animals in true hibernation.” They are in the den from October to January. These dens are often made of rock piles or found in a hollowed out tree.
“The females begin to breed at about 3.5 years, breeding every two years from late June-August. The cubs are born blind and weigh about ½ -3/4 pound and the litter size is one to four. Cub mortality is 20-25 percent during the first year and are due mostly to predators or separation from their mother.”
“They have no natural predators and it is a slow growing population,” she said and adds that in 1900 the bear population was near extinction. “The population recovered through Virginia land acquisitions, state parks and hunting regulations implemented to help protect the species. We look at the cultural carrying capacity or how many people will tolerate.”
Sajecki then discussed nuisance attractions for bears and bear problem management.
“Residential complaints, 67 percent are trash or birdfeeders and in agriculture 22 percent are crops and livestock. They have been known to go after goats and chickens but mostly it is the feed they want.”
As for bear attacks? The recent case of two hunters who encountered a rabid bear was mentioned.
“It was determined that this particular bear may have been bitten by a raccoon. Bears do not usually contract rabies because they are solitary. This bear exhibited bizarre behavior, outside the norm for bears.” She adds there have been only two reported cases of rabies in New Jersey in 1984 and one case in Maryland in 2007.
“I might be afraid to go outside if I had not worked with bears for eleven years,” she said. “Predatory attacks and resulting fatalities have occurred mostly in rural areas of Alaska and Canada and black bear attacks have been only 62 during a 100 years. It is less likely to be attacked by a black bear then to be attacked by a dog or an alligator.” She described the warning signs for bears who feel someone is trespassing.
“Bears will stomp their feet and make huffy sounds.”
Mothers who feel that her cubs are being threatened have always been touted as being the most ferocious and dangerous.
“A black bear mother is not dangerous. She will climb a tree with her cubs or lead the threat away from them or stay close by,” said then illustrated her point with an encounter she had with a female black bear. “I was called in to help at a construction site when two black bear cubs were discovered together and no one could locate the mother and thought they were abandoned. One cub ran up a tree and I tried to get it down so that it could be with the other cub. It was cold and they needed to be together to keep them warm. As I tried to get the one cub down, he was screaming and I heard this huffy noise behind me and discovered the mother had been nearby the whole time.” She adds the best thing to do when confronted with a mother and cubs is give them space, be very quiet and retreat slowly.
“It’s a good rule not to get too close to any wild animal. It is also illegal to feed or bait bears. If a bear continually keeps getting into the trash or feeders the property owner can be cited for not taking care of the problem. Do not leave pet food outside, monitor vegetable gardens and clean up fruit in fruit orchards that fall on the ground.” Sajecki then demonstrated two different types of specialty trash cans to keep bears from getting the trash. One was expensive and she showed the audience how they modify their existing trash can to keep bears out of it. “A bear will give up if not accessible.” She also recommended taking down birdfeeders between April 1 and Dec. 1.
“Thirty percent of complaints are bird feeder related. Do not put another bird feeder out in place of the one that was destroyed.” She adds, “Also, keep grills clean and no food scraps outside. Protect crops and orchards by keeping these areas clean, use noisemakers and use electric fencing around beehives. Electric fencing is a great deterrent.” She showed some actual live footage of bears trying to get at something and were shocked by the fence, never to return.
If a bear should enter a house, as one did up in Wintergreen, Sajecki says do not panic. Open all the doors and let the bear get out and do not block escape routes.
“Do not approach a bear in this situation but do not back down and do not let it feel comfortable in the house.”
As for nuisance bears, Sajecki states they used to do a trap and release but this is no longer done.
“All that would happen is the bear would return to the spot it liked or get killed in the road or become someone else’s problem. The last option for a public safety risk or repeat offenders is to euthanize but this is a last option and we emphasize non-lethal methods when dealing with bears. Virginia euthanizes very few bears,” said Sajecki. “We hate it so prevent problems from happening. Property owners need to be aware and there has to be community involvement. Wintergreen formed a committee to deal with their problems. By using preventative measures and non-lethal means, property damage dropped 90 percent and an 80 percent reduction in bear incidences.”