Where the Bears Are

As more prowl Virginia’s neighborhoods, it pays to be bear wise.

When you put up a bird feeder in a suburban neighborhood, it’s a sure bet that the squirrels, or even a pesky raccoon, will have a go at it. What you may not expect, however, is to look out the window and spot a bear snarfing your sunflower seeds.

But such sightings are becoming more common, thanks to a sustained program of recovery for the Commonwealth’s black bears. Nearly extirpated by 1900, they were confined to just two small remnant populations in the Great Dismal Swamp and the mountains of western Virginia. Today, with our bear population approaching 20,000, these charismatic natives are found in nearly every part of the state. 

Last year, black bears were spotted in neighborhoods in Arlington, Richmond, and Chesapeake; they’ve shown up in Virginia Beach, and another roamed Northern Virginia this past fall. 

More bears mean more bear-human encounters. And while it might feel thrilling to spot a bear in the distance during a hike in the woods, a bear eviscerating your trash or dismantling your meaty-smelling grill is another thing altogether. Whether you’d call this a bear problem or a people problem depends on your point of view, but wildlife officials say a good way to avoid either one is to know a few things about black bears.

One is that they have an acute sense of smell—seven times more sensitive than a bloodhound’s. And that sense of smell is key to the second thing you probably actually already know about bears: they like to eat. 

They’re particularly peckish in the spring, after the lean winter months, and in the fall, when they’re packing on the pounds to get through the upcoming winter. During this time, a bear may feed for up to 20 hours and gain as much as two pounds every day. But really, there’s no time of year when a bear that’s out and about is going to turn down an easy meal. 

What you don’t want to do, then, is make your yard the equivalent of an ursine buffet. When a bear finds a reliable food source, it will keep returning, and once that bear becomes habituated to humans and their food, the likelihood of a bear-human encounter increases. 

Researchers have found that relocating nuisance bears isn’t effective, unfortunately. If a bear knows there’s a place where there’s food to be had, it will find its way back across remarkably long distances, risking run-ins with traffic or other bears along the way. 

While bears tend to be naturally shy, a threatened bear is a dangerous bear. If you live in a bear-friendly area, and even more importantly, if you actually see a bear in your yard, snacking at your bird feeder or grocery shopping in your trash—you’ll want to discourage it from hanging around, or coming back. 

Fatal black bear encounters are, in fact, surprisingly rare. Since 1900, fewer than 100 deaths have been documented in all of North America. Still, to avoid the dubious honor of becoming “Customer Number 100,” it’s best not to approach a bear in your yard, and for heaven’s sake, don’t send your dog out to scare it off. Banging on pots and pans or shouting can be enough to send a visiting bear on its way. DWR.Virginia.gov, BearWise.org

The Bear Facts
  • An estimated 900,000 black bears roam the wild, from northern Mexico to Alaska and Canada. 
  • Black bears are omnivorous and opportunistic. While they prefer fruits, berries, nuts, and insects, they will happily dine on garbage, animal carcasses, or the occasional small pet.
  • Bears can live up to 30 years in the wilderness. 
  • Adult male black bears typically weigh 200–500 pounds, while females weigh 100–250. In winter, they can lose 30 percent of their body weight. 
  • Black bears occupy a greater range of habitats than any other bear worldwide. As habitats go, a black bear looking to den may, in fact, find your unlocked garden shed ideal for a long winter’s nap.
  • Bears are crepuscular—which means they’re generally most active at dusk and dawn. 
  • Bear spray is effective, but only at close range, 50 feet or less. Practice removing the safety cap before you need to use it.

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue.

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