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Bear population likely is up in city, counties
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Dr. Nancy Moncrief, acting director of research and collections and curator of mammalogy at Virginia Museum of Natural History, is shcown with black bear skulls. Black bears likely are on the rise in Martinsville and surrounding areas according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)

Monday, January 20, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The black bear population in Henry County, Martinsville and Patrick County likely is on the rise.

“Across Virginia, we’ve seen an increase in the number of bears for the last several years,” said Dan Lovelace, district wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). “At this point, we think that we have a continually growing bear population with the number of sows (females) with cubs we’ve seen. We expect the population will remain at least stable or continue to increase.”

Last year, more bear sightings than usual were reported in the area. One reason, Lovelace said, could be related to the acorn crop in recent years.

According to Nancy Moncrief, curator of mammalogy at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, a black bear’s diet varies by time of year. In the spring, bears eat newly emerging plants; in the summer, they eat mostly fruits and berries; and in the fall, they gorge on acorns to build up fat for the winter.

Female bears give birth in their dens during the winter, Moncrief said, and if they are unable to build up enough fat reserves to sustain themselves during a pregnancy, their bodies will re-absorb the embryos.

In the fall of 2012, Lovelace said, acorns were plentiful, and as a result, female bears were able to find plenty of food, leading to a spike in bear cub births over the winter.

In fall 2013, however, the acorn crop was poor, he said. Therefore, bears were required to travel farther afield in search of food, sometimes leaving the woods and entering residential areas to pick through garbage cans and eat from bird feeders.

As a result, the population of bears not only increased, but the likelihood of bears entering areas where people would see them increased as well.

“One thing about bears is that they can travel over a large area and cover a lot of ground looking for food,” Lovelace said. “If there’s no food around their home, they’re going to move.”

For bears, there are few things more enticing than a trash can, Moncrief said.

“Typically, their diet is high in carbohydrates, and what they’re really trying to get is a lot of protein and fat,” she said. “And what do people put in their garbage cans? Protein and fat.”

According to Lovelace, the number of black bears killed by hunters in 2013 is not yet available, but 43 bears were killed between 2011 and 2012 in Henry County and Patrick County: 14 in Henry and 29 in Patrick.

“We have a conservative bear harvest season,” Lovelace said. In Henry County and Patrick County, he said, the archery season lasts from Oct. 5 through Nov. 15; muzzleloader season lasts from Nov. 9 through Nov. 15; and general firearms season lasts from Dec. 2 through Dec. 21.

Female bears with cubs cannot be killed.

The season is designed to protect females and cubs, Lovelace said, because by the time the general firearms season opens, many of the females already have “denned up” for the winter.

According to Moncrief, pregnant female bears den first, and older males den last. Older males also leave their dens first, and females with cubs leave last.

Females give birth to cubs only every other year, she said, and the cubs mature slowly compared with other mammals. For example, she said, under the most optimal conditions and without hunting, black bears in Virginia could theoretically double their population every three years.

White-tailed deer, on the other hand, could theoretically double their population each year under optimal conditions.

In spite of their size, it’s difficult to determine exactly how many bears exist in the wild, Moncrief said.

“There are some people who study bears a lot who say that black bears are kind of secretive,” she said. “They’re used to living in areas that are fairly densely wooded. They are less likely to be really aggressive toward people, because if they’re confronted by something they perceive to be a threat, their tendency is to run off and hide in the forest.”

Of the three bear species found in North America — the black bear, the brown bear and the polar bear — only the black bear is found in Virginia, Moncrief said. The black bear also is the smallest of the three and the least likely to present a danger to people, she said.

Nonetheless, the VDGIF advises caution around bears, Lovelace said. Bears should be avoided, and it is against the law to feed them, even unintentionally.

Lovelace advised against leaving bird seed outside if bears are seen around the feeders. Additionally, he advised people to secure their outside garbage cans because “nine times out of 10, bears move on if you secure your trash.”

For more information on black bears in Virginia, including general facts, hunting regulations and instructions for properly securing garbage cans, visit


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