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The Future of Wildlife in Virginia

Wildlife Center of Virginia

When Europens first arrived at Jamestown in 1607, black bears were prevalent in Virginia, but over the years the human population expanded, and the bear population – hunted for food and hides – nearly disappeared.  Now, bears have made a comeback, but do they and other wild animals have a future in this state? 

On a windy morning this spring, Jamie Estep showed up at the Wildlife Center of Virginia with a baby bird that seemed to have lost its way.

“I found the little duck in the yard, and there was nobody around to take care of him," he recalls.  "I called the wildlife center, asked what I should do with him, and they said bring him on in.”

Each year, thousands of people do just that – and the center has no trouble supporting itself without any tax money.  President Ed Clark says the public has bankrolled this operation, even during the pandemic.

“Since we had to cancel all of our face to face education programs and all of our face-to-face fundraising programs, we were braced for a pretty big hit financially.  We  did our gala online for the first time ever, and we shattered every fundraising record we ever had.”

But in spite of the online enthusiasm and all the money spent to rescue bears and deer, rabbits and birds, Clark knows they could be killed by hunters or hit by cars.

“We don’t guarantee any of our patients a risk-free existence," he explains.  "What we try to guarantee is a second chance.”

And he believes most of those animals will have that opportunity to live wild if people are properly educated about how to co-exist with them.  Take bears for example.

“Most people got their attitude about bears from Goldilocks -- fairy tales,” Clark says. 

Which means they’re afraid of them, but he claims humans should have no fear.

“If you see a bear, don’t freak out.  Get a camera.  Take a picture.  Count yourself lucky, but also don’t feed that bear.  If the bear is at your bird feeder, take the bird feeder down.  If the bear knocks it down on Monday night, and you put it up Tuesday morning, the bear will be right back Tuesday night to knock it down again. Bears are looking for an easy meal.”

But what if that bear is on your front porch or looking in your back door?

“Make a lot of noise," he suggests.  " Hold your hands up, wave things, open your coat, make yourself look bigger, and 99 times out of a hundred bears will flee.  The only scenario where there really is potential conflict and danger is when it’s a sow bear with cubs, and especially if somebody has a dog that is off a leash and too close to her cubs, her instinct is to remove the largest predator first, and that’s the person, and in almost everu situation we’ve had here in Virginia where somebody’s been swatted by a bear or  bitten by a bear, it has been exactly that scenario.”

Credit Wildlife Center of Virginia
Copperheads are one of three venomous snakes in Virginia.  Their bite is rarely fatal, but the Wildlife Center offers advice on how to avoid them, cotton mouths and rattle snakes.

The Wildlife Center also makes a plea for snakes.  Front desk manager Connor Gillespie knows serpents spark fear in many people.

“That’s okay, but it’s not okay to hurt them," he says.  "What we tell people is if they find a snake, just take a picture, call us, we can see what snake it is and give them some advice on how to kind of get it to move out of their area.”

He adds that it’s illegal to kill snakes in Virginia and – like bears – they are usually afraid of people and very unlikely to attack. If we can learn to live with snakes, bears and other challenging creatures, experts say they do have a future in Virginia – one that enriches the lives of people who live here. 

Clark says bears have proven the point.  Twenty years ago, they were rare in the Commonwealth.  That’s when the state created a management plan.

“The goal originally was about 12,000 bears for the state, and we are finding bears in places that nobody ever heard of a bear before.”

And so it seems that with good public education, limits on hunting, acquisition of more public land and reforestation, Virginia will be for lovers and for wildlife.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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