Bear encounters on the rise in Shenandoah Valley

Page News and Courier

LURAY ― Several black bear sightings in the Shenandoah National Park and the Valley are prompting park and town officials to alert residents to “unusual bear activity.”

Last Thursday, SNP established temporary closures in its South District after several bear sightings. The previous weekend, a hiker reported a 300-pound bear that was “unusually assertive in approaching him to obtain food,” according to a July 7 news release issued by the park.

The sighting was one of several reported by hikers to park officials that week.

The bear was unphased by normal scare tactics, approaching the backcountry hiker close enough that the hiker prodded the animal with hiking poles before he meandered away.

“This is unusual and troubling behavior for a black bear,” park wildlife biologist Rolph Gubler said in the news release.

As a precaution, park officials have temporarily closed the entire Big Run Loop Trail and a section of the Big Run Portal Trail, from Big Run Loop to the Patterson Ridge Trail. A 2.5-mile camping closure is also in effect along a portion of the Appalachian Trail, from Browns Gap (mile 83 on Skyline Drive) to the Loft Mountain Campground area.

If the the bear's behavior is “repeated,” said park superintendent Jim Northup, it may “have to be removed from the population.”

Town officials in Luray have also received several reports of a smaller black bear spotted on several South Court Street properties and near the Luray-Hawksbill Greenway, near Oscar Sours Bridge.

The bear ― about 100 pounds ― is likely a yearling. Black bears breed every two years. When a mama bear gives birth in January, the cub stays with its mother for the first year, until the next spring comes.

Bears typically head out of the woods in search of food from May to August, with yearlings often venturing farther from their natural habitat due to inexperience and curiosity.

During Monday night's council meeting, Luray Police Chief Bow Cook told councilmen that Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries officials are not removing the bear at this time. Instead, the department is advising residents not to leave bird feeders empty and to avoid setting trash outside until collection day.

Park officials are reminding hikers and campers and Skyline Drive visitors to refrain from feeding bears. Park regulations require no less than 50 yards to safely view a bear.

Effective scare tactics include making loud, assertive noises and waving one's arms. If a bear does not leave, or if it huffs or makes popping sounds by snapping its jaws, the encounterer should slowly back away to a secure area, or at least 200 yards away, avoiding direct eye contact. Bear spray should be used only as a last resort.

Black bear attacks are rare, as they tend to be wary of people.

According to the State Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, bears occur in at least 92 of Virginia's 98 counties and cities.

Last week the department announced that biologists will be radio-collaring adult female bears in Virginia for the first time in more than a decade. Data collected through the GPS radio-collars will “provide new insights into the movements, denning habits and home ranges of wild, female bears in unstudied areas of Virginia,” according to a July 8 news release issued by the agency. About 10 collars are set to be deployed in the Shenandoah Valley and in south central Virginia this year.

Several other bear sightings have recently been reported in the Valley, including several reports of a 200-pound black bear in Harrisonburg last week. That bear eventually made its way onto the campus of James Madison University, spooking a group of rising freshmen during an orientation, before eventually making its way out of the city and into the county.

Bear sighting have also recently been reported in Broadway, Keezletown, Linville and Front Royal.

To report a bear sighting at an SNP campground or picnic area, or if someone is deliberately feeding a bear, contact park staff by calling the emergency line 1-800-732-0911.

Page News and Courier reporter Chris Slater contributed to this story.

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