Wild Ideas: Contemplating bear scenarios

Plumbing the mysteries of the natural world can be a great pastime — like trying to put together a large, intricate jigsaw puzzle that is constantly changing. Take, for example, a black bear encounter I had recently when I was taking my old dog, Mai Coh, up the mountain behind my house to a secluded pond. She loves to soak in it, and I love to sit nearby, observing wildlife and decompressing.

Bear yearlings, which can range from 40 to 100 pounds, depending on how well they’ve been eating, often look a bit gawky, like teenagers who haven’t quite grown into their ears. Photos courtesy Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Bear yearlings, which can range from 40 to 100 pounds, depending on how well they’ve been eating, often look a bit gawky, like teenagers who haven’t quite grown into their ears. Photos courtesy Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

As we reached the second of two concrete tanks that had formerly been used to raise trout and now provide shallow, vernal pools that frogs love to breed in, I could hear the banjo-like call of a northern green frog. In the background, I also heard what sounded like a pileated woodpecker banging away at a tree. As I watched the frog, a scrambling sound was added into the banging, so I looked up to try to see the source of the noise.

Through the thick forest, about 30 yards up and to the left of me, was a big black blob on a low branch in a tree — a bear. Since the bear was so close, and I didn’t want to sneak up on it but did want to get to the pond, I started yelling to get its attention, hoping to chase it away. It didn’t seem to see me but finally came down the tree and looked around. It appeared to spot us — and went back up the tree.

I really did want to go to the pond, so I yelled at the bear some more. With the bear obviously not interested in leaving the tree at this point, I decided it was better to just withdraw, so I slowly backed down the trail, knowing it’s always better to avoid turning your back to a bear and not to look afraid. I finally turned around so I wouldn’t trip but kept an eye on the bear, which seemed perfectly satisfied to stay in the safety of the tree.

Just after we passed the tanks, I glanced over to the drainage that ran on the other side of the trail and there was another bear that looked about the same size as the first. It had stopped to look at us, so I yelled at it, too, to keep it moving. I didn’t like the thought of being wedged between two bears when I had no clue what they were up to. The second bear quickly disappeared into the thick foliage along the drainage, and Mai Coh and I continued toward home.

When I got to the house, I contemplated the various scenarios that might explain seeing two bears so close together. Bears are not social creatures. Males, especially, can be quite unwelcoming of other bears in their territory, even killing cubs they find. The only time bears usually are together is in the case of a sow with cubs, yearling siblings that have not yet separated or a mating pair, which will stay together for a few days before going their separate ways. So which was the case here?

I kept in mind that I’m terrible at judging the size or length of anything from a distance, and this time of year yearlings are big enough that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish a large one from a small adult, so they could be yearling siblings that had been run off by their mother but had not yet separated from each other, or the one in the tree could be a yearling whose mother (the other bear) was in the process of running it off or who sent it up a tree for safety.

This bear yearling has climbed a tree for some unknown reason.
This bear yearling has climbed a tree for some unknown reason.

Another option is that it could be the two bears were a mating pair and they had seen us come up the trail and had parted in the process of avoiding us. The final scenario I contemplated was that these were two bears that just happened to be in the area at the same and may or may not have been aware of each other’s presence.

From what I’ve read and seen, most yearlings this time of year are supposed to be about 60-80 pounds; I thought I should double-check that and the dates of black bears’ breeding season here, which I thought started in June, so I emailed Jaime Sajecki, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ Black Bear Project leader.

“Yay for seeing bears!” was the first thing Jaime wrote in her response. (I second that.) She said yearlings can be “anywhere from 40 to 100 pounds right now depending on how well they ate in the fall and this spring . . . I would say that they probably average around 65-70.”

If the bears I saw were the same size, she added, they were probably siblings, who “will sometimes stay together for the whole year or longer once they get the boot from mom; some will even den together for another winter.” They did seem to be about the same size to me, but it was really hard to tell from seeing them at different distances and not together.

About the mating season, Jaime said, “It is probably a little early for mating pairs but not impossible.” So, basically, I didn’t solve the mystery but did learn a bit more about bears.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 284 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”