Some days you eat the bear — but most days in Rappahannock County, the bear eats . . . not you. Your stuff.
That stuff could be birdseed, dog food, livestock feed, garbage, compost or whatever else you left outside, or within sniffing distance.
In fact, the major difference between people and bears, as far as I can tell after a dozen years of living with them here in this rough-edged paradise, is that people may or not remember where they left that bag of sunflower seeds — but bears will never forget.
“I have heard several experts now comparing the intelligence of bears very favorably to the German shepherd, a very smart dog,” says Marshall Jones, a conservation adviser with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, who lives at the end of Keyser Hollow off Gid Brown Hollow, right up against Shenandoah National Park.
Jones mentions Jaime Sajecki, the head of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ (DGIF) State Bear Project, whose “Living With Bears” lecture he has adapted and enlarged for recent lectures and articles for both SCBI and the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP), where he also serves on the board.
“Jaime now says bears are smarter than her German shepherd,” Jones says. “And she really loves her German shepherd.”
There are estimated to be about 15,000 American black bears (ursus Americanus) in Virginia. And there is one particularly large male whose home range includes the small range that my wife and I call home, near Rock Mills. Though we don’t see him every year, he stopped by the other night at about 2 a.m., apparently on a hunch that the small covered trash can under the porch, in which we store sunflower seeds for winter bird-feeding, had not yet been emptied. He was right.
Two years ago, the same bear (I’m pretty sure) stood up at the porch door, probably just to see what kind of idiots were inside banging on pots and howling along with the two barking border collies. He more than filled the door’s two glass panes.
After shaking his head, he stuck a giant paw through the screen so he could use the sill to lift himself high enough to bite the bottom off a bird feeder. We made enough of a nuisance of ourselves to get him to amble slowly back into the woods — but the next morning’s evidence showed he’d come back and finished the job later, this time quietly enough to not wake the dogs.
Like so many residents of Rappahannock, our neighbors reported similar recent sightings and visits.
On Rock Mills Road, Roberta Anderson was sitting on the porch in late afternoon a few weeks ago with her granddaughter, and noticed that one of her and husband Bob’s cows had gotten into a high pasture where he shouldn’t have been.
“Then, I thought, that isn’t a cow,” she said. By the time she’d gotten the binoculars, he was gone.
Joyce Abell, just up the road, says about three weeks ago, a large male found the 100-pound sack of sunflower seeds she’d forgotten in the open-sided tractor shed, intending to give to her son.
“Birdseed was strewn all around the shed,” she said. The night before, she believes her dog — a Labrador-Akita mix whose name is Bear — had treed the bear. This next night, however, the dog was inside and, prompted by the barking, she turned on the light and there he was, standing, about two feet from the edge of the deck.
“I think all my neighbors the last few years have had bears at their place, but I never had. It was . . . a wonderful experience for me,” she said. “Just to meet one.”
And to talk about it, I might add. And, Jones says, this is the best thing to do. “One of the things that hit me, as the bear population grows, is that this is a neighborhood issue. As soon as I did something to cause the bear to think maybe there’s something good to eat around a house or an outbuilding, then he’s going to a neighbor’s to see if the same is true. Bears have good memories. It’s a good thing to talk to your neighbors about the things they might be doing that inadvertently attract bears.”
Though black bears are plentiful now throughout Virginia — DGIF considers them “resident” in all but two Eastern Shore counties — this was not always true. By 1900, hunting had decimated their number to a few remnant populations in the mountains along the West Virginia and North Carolina borders and in Great Dismal Swamp.
After early- to mid-20th century establishment of Shenandoah National Park and national forests west and south of the Shenandoah Valley, along with more restrictive wildlife management regulations, they’ve made a steady comeback.
“Everywhere in Rappahannock County is bear country,” says Jones. “The state DGIF would say that every county in Virginia except the Eastern Shore has bears — not just passing through, but living there. It’s a great thing — but it does mean people need to do the right thing.
“My wife is always reminding me, when a bear comes by — it’s not the bear’s fault.”
As Jones says, black bears “are dangerous, sure, and they could hurt you or even kill you — but they don’t. No one in Virginia has ever been seriously injured or killed in an unprovoked attack by a bear.
“Our bears have been very well-behaved,” he says. “And we need to do the same thing.”
The state last year increased various bear-hunting seasons to boost the hunters’ harvest for 2009-2010 by a hundred animals to 2,304. Though it’s not certain whether hunting is the only way to balance the increase in bears-to-people ratios, DGIF is preparing later this year to come up with a new bear management plan, Jones says.
“DGIF specifically recognizes that there are more and more bears, and the state needs to think about what we can do to make sure we’re doing the most responsible thing,” Jones says.
Meanwhile, in our neighborhood, most of us are slowly learning — not as quickly as, say, a bear — to do the right thing.
Neighbor John Bourgeois, for instance, says he probably won’t leave his dog’s food in an unsecured container on the porch any more.
“Beau was barking during the night, but I didn’t pay attention. I went out to feed him in the morning, and the container where I keep the dog food, well — it was gone.”
This was later the same night that the Big Guy had visited our place.
“He had gotten into a container of cooking grease near the grill,” Bourgeois says. “So he had left these huge oily paw prints up and down the deck and porch.”
Bourgeois eventually found the container, mostly empty, in the woods nearby.
“I guess we just have to bear with it.”
There are two Web pages where you’ll find excellent, helpful information on living with bears — and comprehensive tips for keeping them away from your home. Go to RLEP’s site (rlep.org) and scroll down to the bear photos, or go to dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/bear for an index of useful bear links and information.
Acorns vs. Cheesburgers
In case you wondered whether a bear — which is devoted to packing in the calories — would rather forage in the woods or your trash pile:
A dozen eggs = 888 calories = 234 acorns.
A pound of hot dogs = 1,456 calories = 384 acorns.
A McDonald’s double cheeseburger combo = 1,620 calories = 427 acorns.
A pound of black oil sunflower seeds = 1,740 calories = 458 acorns.
A dozen jelly donuts = 2,640 calories = 695 acorns.
A large pepperoni pizza = 17,352 calories = 4,566 acorns.
Courtesy of the Living with Wildlife Foundation