As the polar vortex descended upon us over the weekend, there was little doubt that bears were in their dens sound asleep.
But winter does not always mean bears are hibernating, which we learned over Christmas.
After two days away, I came home to find the top of our wooden trash bin ripped apart and garbage scattered on the ground.
When I finished picking up after the marauder, I looked up to see our set-in-concrete bird feeder on its side. Granted, the ground was soft from so much rain, but it shouldn’t have been that easy to topple.
I called the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to see if others had reported a bear visit for Christmas.
Dan Lovelace, a wildlife biologist, said he had not received other calls and that this time of year is usually pretty quiet. Most nuisance calls come between April and October, with June as the busiest month.
Depending on weather and food conditions, black bears enter their dens between October and January. Bears will not eat, drink, urinate or defecate while denning, according to the DGIF website, but bears are easily awoken and may be active during warm winter days.
Bear cubs are usually born between early January and mid-February. Cubs and adults emerge between mid-March and early May. In Virginia, most bears den in large, hollow trees.
When the mother is ready to breed again, usually in June or July, she sends her yearlings to fend for themselves. Always hungry, these yearlings will seek easy sources of food.
The ability to access human food sources can spell trouble for bears, which are often killed if they continue to bother humans.
In Virginia, it’s illegal to feed or bait bears intentionally or inadvertently. To avoid bear conflicts, store garbage in bear resistant trash containers or in a secure building. Remove bird feeders if a bear is in the area. Keep grills clean. Don’t leave pet food outdoors. Don’t put meat scraps in your compost pile.
Lovelace said it’s also a good idea for beekeepers and people with small livestock to use electric fences, though livestock predation is rare.
Bears are opportunistic omnivores and will even eat carrion. In fall, males can gain up to 100 pounds to prepare for hibernation.
Last fall, acorn production was spotty, Lovelace said, which creates a hunger problem for these large mammals, which range from 4 to 7 feet tall. Females can weigh up to 250 pounds, while males may be double that size.
The bear population in Virginia has been increasing since the early 1900s, when they were almost wiped out by habitat destruction and hunting. Management plans have been helping, as evidenced from hunting statistics.
During the 2017-18 hunting season, 2,861 bears were harvested. From 1929 to 1986, fewer than 500 bears were taken annually.
Now, as humans increasingly move into their territory, bears have to cope with reduced ranges. We must share their territory, and remember, as Lovelace put it, “Bears are just looking for something to eat.”