Trouble bruin in town, county: Hindered berry growth may be contributing to bear sightings

The Warren Sentinel

FRONT ROYAL — A bag full of baseball equipment recently went missing from the back of 16-year old Dylan Sisk's truck. Then, a bag of pig feed disappeared from the family's house.
Figuring a bear had stolen the pig feed, Dylan's father searched the area around the house. To their surprise, the baseball tote was found with everything except the protein bars it contained.

"I guess he'll be glad to have backup gloves and cleats in the future," his mother, Melissa Reinhardt Sisk said.

Bears are a part of life in a town nestled in the mountains, but more than usual have been on the prowl. The increased sightings are most likely due to hindered berry growth from the cold and wet spring, according to District Wildlife Biologist Fred Frenzel.

So, bears resort to resort to eating items such as thrown-away food, pig feed and protein bars.

Bears are not hunted in the Shenandoah National Park, so their population becomes high and they can become crowded or hungry, Frezel said. If there is not enough food, bears will disperse.

"Unfortunately for the Town of Front Royal, it's the first stop when they leave the park, and there are plenty of food sources there, primarily in Dumpsters and trash cans," Frenzel said.

The increased bear sightings are not localized and the five counties Frenzel covers — Clarke, Frederick, Warren, Shenandoah and Fauquier — have seen more bears than usual.

The unusually high number of bear sightings is statewide, said Alberto Medina, an officer with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Every year, there is high bear activity in early spring but it usually declines around homes and towns by this time of the year, Frenzel said. Berries are starting to get ripe in woods, but it is late.

Eskridge Melissa has lived in Skyland Estates for 20 years, and never had a bear issue like this year. A bear recently stole her petsí food. Her husband shot off a gun to scare the bear away, but it showed up again later that night.

Leslie Watkins lives on Henrico Road and has seen two or three bears every week.

"I've lived in Front Royal my whole life and I've never seen the bears in town as much as I have this year," Watkins said. "I know exactly what noise the bear makes when he opens my town trash can at night."

Teri McGrath's house backs up to the woods in Vaught Estates, and has had bears at the house almost every night and during some days.

About three weeks ago, a bear destroyed McGrathís trash cans and screen doors. There was no food, trash or animal feed outside of the house, she said.

Biologists are not sure of the areaís bear population because they are hard to survey, Frenzel said. The only real measure is how many bears are taken by hunters. Bear hunting season is in the fall. A special damage permit to kill a bear can be obtained and is determined on a case by case basis. If a bear is endangering human life, lethal force is justified.

The large fire that recently swept through the Shenandoah National Park is not related to increased bear sightings, because there is increased activity in areas away from the park, Frenzel said. In the long run, bears benefit from a fire in a forest because it encourages the regrowth of berry bushes.

Bears' main food source in the area is acorns in the fall and berries in the spring, Frenzel said. Since berries are blooming late, bears have sought other food sources such as garbage cans and bird feeders.

"They'll eat pretty much whatever is easiest," Frenzel said. "They're what we call opportunistic omnivores."

Almost all bear issues are food related, Medina said. Therefore, it is important to secure trash — store it in a garage, if available — and take down bird feeders during the summer.

It is important to scare bears away the first time one is seen, and let them know they are not welcome, Medina said. If bears leave on their own terms, they believe it is a safe environment to return.

Bears are not by a naturally aggressive animal, and do not want to be around humans. A normal bear response to human presence is running away, Medina said.

"But they like our stuff. They like our garbage. They like our bird feed. They like our pet food. They're all about food. A bear's job is to fill its belly up every day," Frenzel said.

When bears begin to rely on a food source, they may stand their ground, Medina said. A mother bear protecting her cubs also may be more aggressive.

"Don't feed them. Scare them off every time you see them," Medina said. "I always tell people 'take a few pictures first, appreciate the beautiful animal, then let them know that you're there and he's not welcome.'"

If a person spots a bear, Frenzel recommends stopping, standing still and not running. Stand tall and make loud noises. To retreat, back away slowly and do not turn your back. If a bear is in a personís yard, bang pots and pans or blow compressed air horns.

Males and non-pregnant female bears stay out until late December in a typical year and stay in a den until about late March, Frenzel said. Weather and food resources are two factors that drive bears into the den during wintertime. Pregnant females are the first to go into the den around November.

Bears are not true hibernators, such as groundhogs, Frenzel said. Bears go into more of a deep sleep in which their heart rate and respiration slightly drop.

For more information on coexisting with bears, visit

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