A black bear recently strolled through a high school parking lot in Arlington, Virginia. In Virginia Beach, a teacher doing paperwork at home saw a bear emptying the bird feeder and turning over trash cans in her yard. Normally found in distant forests and mountains, the bears have made several appearances this spring in the suburban areas of Northern Virginia and Maryland.
Bears' sense of smell
These furry spring visitors are usually juveniles (yearlings) beginning a new stage of life. When they are 18 months old, mom sends them off to find their own territory.
“May and June is the peak dispersal time for those teenagers,” said Harry Spiker of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “They’re just passing through.”
Like human teenagers, yearlings are always hungry. “Their most important food source is acorns,” Spiker said, “but this region has many other food options.”
Black bears are omnivores, eating almost anything. Grasses, nuts, berries, insects, fish, carrion (dead animals), and
any food left out by people — including pet food — will do.
Even toothpaste or chewing gum smells like food to a hungry bear, said Alonso Abugattas, natural resources manager for Arlington County Parks. Whether it’s a candy bar in a backpack or leftover grease on a grill, a black bear’s amazing sense of smell will find it.
There are more than 1,700 black bears in Virginia, seen in most of Virginia’s 95 counties. Maryland has about 2,400 bears, concentrated in the state’s western counties.
Spiker conducts cub counts in Maryland to help predict the growth or decline of bear populations each year.
“This year we’re seeing a good reproductive rate of about three cubs per sow [female bear],” he said. Recently, a black bear and five cubs snuggled under the porch of a house in a Deep Creek Lake community. “That’s only the second litter of five cubs we’ve seen — the last being in Allegany County in 2015.”
“We don’t relocate bears,” Spiker said. “They’ll just come back.” Instead, after tagging them, pepper spray, noise and tough-love measures let bears know they are not welcome in residential areas.
Black bears are intelligent. They not only remember where they found food, but Spiker has watched them look both ways before crossing a street. “Years ago, on an [Interstate] 270 ramp in Bethesda, a bear carefully watched traffic from underneath a guard rail before crossing.”
Are they dangerous?
Although these chubby critters with small beady eyes and short legs often remind us of teddy bears, they are wild animals.
“Black bears are normally afraid of people, both young and old,” said Abugattas. But if the reward of getting food is high, they’ll take the risk of getting too close.
“Bears will leave you alone as long as you don’t scare them or get between them and something they want: their cubs, food or a way to get away,” he noted.
“People have been living in close proximity with our relatively harmless black bears for a long time and can continue to do so. Enjoy the rare chance to see bears. Don’t bother them, and they’ll not bother you.”
Black bears frequently get into trash cans, coolers and unlocked cars if food is detected. Secure those.
If you’re in a bear-prone area, Harry Spiker of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources recommends taking bird feeders down from April to October when birds have plenty of other food sources.
Bring pet food bowls indoors at night.
For more on keeping black bears away, see dnr.maryland.gov/wildlife/Pages/hunt_trap/bblivingwith.aspx.
Make noise if walking where black bears might be. Don’t surprise a bear by sneaking up on it.
Bears need personal space — always give them an escape route.
Never get between a sow and her cubs.
Never run from a bear — it will want to chase you.
If a black bear sees you, stand tall, back away slowly while talking to the bear “Hey bear, I’m leaving now.”
Do not look the bear directly in the eyes — bears feel threatened by that.
If the black bear paws the ground or makes a popping sound with its jaws, it’s telling you you’re too close.