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What climate change means for black bears

Black bears are accustomed to temperatures fluctuating in a Virginia winter and do not really hibernate.
Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, Meghan Marchetti
Black bears are accustomed to temperatures fluctuating in a Virginia winter and do not really hibernate.

Black bears depend on seasonal cues to guide them. In late summer, for example, they prepare for a time when food won’t be so plentiful.

“They’re eating an enormous amount of food from late August thru about the middle of October,” says Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia. “Then their appetite does go into decline.”

They’re omnivores – preferring a plant-based diet but snacking on small sources of protein and fat.

“They will eat lots and lots of insects and grubs," Clark says. "When bears break into a bee hive as an example, they’re not really there for the honey. They are there for what they call the brood – the larval bee, which is very high in fat content, very high in protein. It’s sort of a super food for bears.”

When there’s less food around, Clark says many animals cope by hibernating.

“Like chipmunks for an example. They’re sound asleep for the winter, and if you happen to come across one that’s hibernating, you can pick him up, and he won’t move.”

But that’s not the case for mid-Atlantic bears according to Wildlife Center veterinarian Karra Pierce.

“Our bears here are not true hibernators. They’re no severely affected by the weather. They kind of ramp down in the winter, but in Virginia you’ll find bears out all year long.”

Which is why Clark urges the public to be on the lookout, and avoid annoying the bears.

“In the next several weeks, the females will start having cubs, and they become very territorial about den sites and very protective of those cubs," he explains. "From really the end of January through a good part of February, if you are out hiking, especially with a dog, keep that dog on a leash and under your control at all times, because honestly the human-bear encounters that we see across Virginia largely result from people being in the bears’ habitat with an unrestrained dog. When the bear comes out its natural inclination is to attack the largest threat first. Unless you have an enormous dog, almost always that’s going to be the person.”

If a bear is wandering around your neighborhood, he adds, it’s probably looking for food, but feeding them is illegal.

“Feeding bears in Virginia, deliberately or inadvertently, is a crime, and you will be prosecuted for it. The conservation police are keenly aware of the implications of this, because almost invariably it’s the bear that’s going to ultimately suffer, and frequently pay with its life when people – with the best of intentions -- put out food and encourage the bears to approach human habitation, and it never works out well for the bear.”

So secure trash cans. Don’t feed pets outside, and limit access to bird seed.

“If you want bird feeders up during the day time, great," Clark advises. "Take them down at sunset. The birds are not feeding on them after dark, and neither are the bears.”

Should a bear venture into your yard, Clark says it’s easy enough to scare them off by making noise, but he cautions, don’t get too close. And if the bear looks unwell, call Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources or the Wildlife Center in Waynesboro.

“Mange in bears is becoming an extremely serious problem here in the mid-Atlantic states. The outbreak we are seeing now in the state of Virginia is quite alarming.”

Mange is caused by mites that burrow into the bear’s skin and secrete a fluid that causes itching, inflammation and hair loss. In some cases, Clark says, the animal may have to be euthanized, but in other cases treatment is possible.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief