The Bears of Fauquier County

The Black Bear: magnificent but out of place in Fauquier County

“Stop Setting the Dinner Table”
— Jeff Collins

Article by Pam Kamphuis

Often, on local social media, people post photos of bears they have seen in their yard. There are quite a few out there in Fauquier County, and not just in the rural areas. I live very close to town and we have had bear visits. Curious, I posted a Facebook request asking people to send in photos of the bears they have seen. There were over 140 responses, some stories, some photos, mostly from the northern end of the county. Almost everyone had a problem with trash and bird feeders, but there were other stories too. 

However, while magnificent, for human safety reasons, as well as the bear’s health and well being, we should be discouraging them from visiting us, both in rural areas and in town. Jordan Green, Wildlife Biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, has answered my how and why questions here, and emphasized the necessity of removing things that attract bears to our property. 

Over the past few years, Fauquier County residents have seen an increased presence of black bears in the country but also in town neighborhoods. Why is that? 

Through history, the exploitation of bears and their natural habitat has caused their population to decline. However, today, some forested habitats have been restored or are protected, and hunting has been regulated. This means a healthy expanding population of bears that have nearly re-established their historic statewide range. Bears are naturally curious and will explore their environment in search of food, leading them to more populated areas. Helpline calls to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources regarding bears in Fauquier County have increased from 35 in 2015 to 129 in 2020, although that is still quite a lot lower than the state average. 

Bears in residential communities will eventually have to be killed. They learn where the easy food is and can’t resist. Do what you can to not lure them in!
--Jason Wicklund

They are magnificent animals, and beautiful to watch. Is it all right to encourage them to frequent your property?  

Virginia is bear country so there is no need to encourage bears to visit your property since one may find its way passing through naturally. This is normal and ok but we certainly don’t want a bear to linger near our homes. If we don’t remove things that attract them, the bears can lose their natural fear of humans and become a public safety threat, possibly resulting in euthanizia. Additionally, human garbage is not a natural part of the bears diet, and can be harmful to their health. Therefore, attracting/feeding bears is illegal in Virginia. 

What attracts bears to homes/farms? 

The most common reason a bear visits is access to bird feeders and garbage. However, really anything with a food or food-like odor can attract a bear, and with a sense of smell seven times more powerful than a bloodhound, even uncleaned grills, pet food bowls, and animal feed can attract bears from a distance.   

I had one trying to get through our dog door again. I had to put plywood over it on the inside because it came through before.
--Greg Swan

Is it all right to go outside to take a photo of a bear? 

While bears are naturally wary of humans, moving close to a bear is not a good idea. Use a telephoto lens. There is no harm in taking an iPhone picture from the safety of your home, but allowing a bear to linger comfortably in your yard while you upload a 45 minute live stream video to social media is only ensuring more visits in the future. 

Are black bears dangerous?

Bears are naturally wary of human presence and don’t see humans or most pets as a prey item. Bears rarely injure humans and unprovoked attacks are exceptionally rare.  

My friend has lots of bear pics including playing in her dog’s pool!
--Etta Cantrell

What about dogs and bears? What about livestock? 

Bears don’t see dogs or cats as a prey item.  However, dogs can make bears react — particularly a mother protecting her young —  and injuries can happen. We recommend keeping pets on leash when going on walks and making sure the yard is clear before letting dogs out, especially in the early morning, dusk, or at night. 

Black bears don’t target larger livestock animals such as cattle or horses. The reason for this simply comes down to size: even a large bear doesn’t want to get kicked.  Black bears will, however, go after smaller livestock, and the most typical victims are chickens.   

I had a visit from a mom and cubs. I tried taking pictures but gave up and just watched the babies play, while the mom sat on her bum and pulled an apple tree limb down to chew on. She had three babies and looked tired lol.
--Anne Cary Williams Bryczek

What should you do if you're outside and you see one? 

While the possibility of injury is remote, remember, never approach a bear.  If the bear doesn’t see you or ignores you, back away slowly until you reach a safe location. If you aren’t able to get to safety before the bear notices you, remain calm, don’t run (triggering a chase response, and bears can run faster than humans anyway), don’t play dead, and don’t turn your back. Stand your ground, and wave your hands in the air to look bigger than you really are. Try to be scary by making loud noises, or throw objects at the bear. If a bear charges you, do not run. Often charges are “bluffs” or a bear’s defensive reaction. Do not bother climbing a tree, bears are faster at it anyway. If, in an extremely rare and unlikely event, a bear makes contact with you, fight back using anything at hand as a weapon such as sticks, or rocks, etc. The most effective defense against bears is bear spray. Bear spray puts out a 30-foot cloud of irritant at about 70mph between you and the bear, creating a barrier resulting in no permanent damage to the bear and giving you time to get away.  

What steps should people take to discourage bears from coming? 

Bears should not be comfortable where humans are present. Securing or removing anything that would attract them is the most important thing. Do not put out bird feeders between April 1 and November 1, clean your grill, clean up pet/livestock food, keep garbage in a garage or shed until the morning of garbage day. When bears do come, I recommend “hazing” to help reinforce bears’ natural fear of humans by making loud noises, shouting, banging pots and pans, using an air horn, throwing (non-edible) objects towards the bear, or even using a paintball gun (providing you are experienced and live in a location where it is legal to fire it) to wallop the adult bear’s (not a cub’s) rump to motivate them to leave.


Resources

Department of Wildlife Resources: dwr.virginia.gov/wildlife/bear/

BearWise: bearwise.org

Wildlife conflict helpline: 1-855-571-9003

 

Pam Kamphuis
About Pam Kamphuis 132 Articles
Pam Kamphuis is an editor and writer for Piedmont Virginian Magazine and Piedmont Lifestyle Magazines.

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