Shenandoah National Park rangers tell a story about a camper who was awakened from a deep sleep one night last summer when he felt something tugging on a few of his toes that were protruding from beneath his spleeping gear.
What he saw when he pried open his sleep-clogged eyes was enough to make him wide awake in a hurry: A bear was curiously nibbling to see if the little dainties were edible.
All the camper suffered were a few bruised toes, park rangers say. But the bear is still probably quaking over the scream that sent him crashing into the underbrush.
"When bears and humans make contact you're usually going to have some misunderstandings," park naturalist David Haskell said last week of the incident. "We've got lots of bears and lots of humans out here, but we're keeping the problems to a minimum."
The national park, with its headquarters just outside of Luray, Va., some 60 to 90 miles west of Northern Virginia, is opening up most of its campgrounds and trails this month for the summer season and rangers are renewing their efforts to keep bears and visitors out of each other's hair--or fur, as the case may be.
It's become an important task in the last few years, naturalists say, because the black bear population in the 300-square-mile park has skyrocketed from fewer than 100 bears 10 years ago to 400 to 500. That means that there's more opportunity for contact between the 1.8 million annual visitors wishing to commune with nature and bears wishing to forgo nature for processed food.
In fact, however, a highly successful bear management program has done just the opposite. Since 1975, when the program was implemented, the number of incidents between bear and human has dropped from 239 to 64 last year, according to officials. At the same time, they say, their program has resulted in a decrease in bear-related damage to cars, tents and camp gear over the same period: down from $14,672 in 1975 to $2,100 last year.
The successful program is simply a series of steps the park has taken to keep bears away from human food and, therefore, humans, Haskell said.
Black bears are naturally shy creatures who will run from humans unless tempted by the smell of food, said naturalist Michael Vaughan of the Virginia Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, who is studying the Shenendoah bears. They are omnivorous, eating anything from berries and acorns to small animals. But, like many creatures, they prefer conveniently packaged food, sugar products and cooked meat.
Older park bears, although in awe of humans, have learned they can usually drive off campers with a few well-chosen growls.
"We are not talking about dumb animals," Vaughan said.
In its effort to keep food out of reach of the bears, the park has spent $100,000 for bear-proof garbage cans. The cans have long slots like mail boxes that thwart bears trying to reach inside.
Also part of the bear management program is the strict enforcement of a federal law that prohibits park visitors from leaving any food unattended. Haskell said rangers won't hesitate to slap a $25 fine on anyone who so much as leaves a cooler on a picnic table. Visitors are warned not to feed the bears as well.
Finally, the park has shipped out 30 bears known to be troublemakers. Generally, these are bears that lived in and around camp sites, scavenging scraps where they could. The bears have been trapped and sent to West Virginia. As for those few resourceful troublemakers that have managed to find their way home again, the rangers ship them even farther away, Haskell said.
"We have pretty much cleared the bears out of the camp areas of the park by removing their food sources there," Haskell said. "Almost all our bear incidents are in the wilderness of the park now."
The key to avoiding unwanted night visitors is for campers to hang their food packs high in the trees, he said. Most bears in the forest approach humans unwittingly, Haskell said.
Except for the camper's few bruised toes, he said, no visitor to Shenendoah has ever been injured by a black bear. Indeed, he said, only in a few cases this century have black bears killed humans.
The bears are smaller than their grizzly counterparts, averaging about 200 pounds. Some are only the size of large dogs, Vaughan said.
But naturalist Daniel W. Carney finds them intriguing enough. Carney, 26, has been tracking the Shenendoah bears since September as part of the study being supervised by Vaughan.
"They never cease to amaze me," said Carney, who puts radio collars on many park bears to track them to determine wandering patterns. "Bears are individuals, they have a different way of looking at things. Some are as tricky as they can be and some just never learn."
Many area farmers, however, find the bears less intriguing and more of a nuisance. They are allowed to shoot any bear they find damaging livestock or crops on their farms, which ring the long, narrow park. Haskell estimated farmers shot 30 park bears last year.
Poachers also shoot the bears for their meat and skins. Their paws are sold and turned into pendants.
Although hunting is prohibited in the park, Haskell estimated 100 park bears are killed in the December hunting season because the bears, natural wanderers, leave their sanctuary to explore neighboring forests and farms. The park is only 30 miles wide at some points, stretching along the Blue Ridge Mountains from Warren County to Albemarle County.
Despite this, the Shenendoah bear population is healthy, Haskell said. There were no black bears when the park was created in 1936--farmers had chased them off the land. But since then the bears have wandered back into the park, settled and raised their young.
Only last week, Carney found a den with triplets, each bear cub weighing in at six pounds.
"They were as big as puppies," said an enthusiastic Carney.