BECKLEY, W.Va. — I suddenly tapped the brakes as the black figure broke in front of the lights of my pickup truck. I drove past the apple tree on a rural Monongalia County roadway every day for almost ten years, but it was the first time I had encountered anything like this. There, lumbering ahead of the grill, was the rump of a black bear cub. Clearly I had disturbed his early morning fruit snack.
All across West Virginia, bears are becoming more and more abundant. The numbers are getting so thick in places they are almost more than their neighbors can tolerate. The Division of Natural Resources hopes folks will help reduce those problems by not feeding bears and to change behavior which can made them dependent on humans for food.
“That is the biggest challenge and what we try to hammer into people’s heads every year is to be proactive and not reactive,” said Division of Natural Resources Bear Project Leader Colin Carpenter.
Black bears in West Virginia have an interesting history. Although they are our official state animal, their numbers plummeted in the 1950’s, ’60’s, and ’70’s. But a rebound in the late 1980’s fueled by a change in the hunting season, boosted the numbers. By the middle of the 1990’s there were enough bears to eliminate the long standing bear sanctuary areas in the mountain counties. By the turn of the century, bears had been reported in all 55 West Virginia counties and the population could be officially counted as “recovered.”
Now, they’re emerging from their long winter naps and they are hungry. Carpenter added unfortunately, for the time being, natural food sources are limited.
“They always come out hungry and they are primarily eating green vegetation,” he said. “Now until the end of June there is very little natural food for them. The end of June will have service berries come ripe, and then in the early part of June blue berries and black berries will start on. Those are when we typically get the biggest number of complains in May and June. They drop way off after that.”
As a result, the DNR advised you can minimize the chances of becoming a black bear victim by removing the materials which would make you an attractive target. Put all garbage up until trash day, feed your pets only what they will eat at one sitting, and take down the bird feeder–including the hummingbird feeder.
“The bears are going to be passing through, we know that. We have resident bears within five miles of all cities and they use the city limits as their home range,” explained Carpenter. “The key is not giving them a meal when they are passing through.”
The problems associated with bears come when they become accustomed to human food sources. They can become destructive and aggressive. The dependency normally doesn’t end well for the animal.
“When bears become food conditioned and human habituated, we generally end up destroying those animals,” Carpenter explained. “It’s something that is easily avoided if we just don’t let them get into the human food sources.”
Chances are pretty good you’ll right now as well to encounter bear cubs. While fun to watch and certainly an interesting experience, it is ill advised to mess with the cubs. Carpenter advised backing off and letting them move on their own. Chances are the mother is lurking nearby. Black bear do not have the disposition and temperament of a grizzly bear. It’s not in their nature to attack and defend their cubs aggressively. Normally when there’s a threat it becomes every bear for itself.
However, Carpenter acknowledged there are incidents every year involving a sow and cubs and humans. He said while uncommon, such incidents are not unheard of and bears should be left at a distance.