Coexisting with Bears

The unusually warm temperatures this past month may keep some of us enjoying the out of doors as long as possible, and we share the out of doors with lots of other creatures out and about.

One excitement of the past summer was when a woman hiking in Douthat State Park had an “encounter” with a bear. That incident lead Allegheny Mountain Radio to talk to Jamie Sajeki, a bear biologist who heads up the Bear Project with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.   After she and I had spoken for a while about how to avoid contact with a bear in the woods, and how much a bear prefers to avoid encounters with us, Jamie shared more about the myths surrounding bears’ behaviors. Underlying most of our conversation was how little most of us know about bears, and are therefore more likely to react with fear or misinformation.

Jamie Sajecki,

“We did a statewide survey of all Virginia residents to look at kind of all of their knowledge and information that they know about bears, and 78% of the people in the state know little or nothing about bears. That’s a huge percent. When we asked people what kind of bears were in Virginia, only 58% gave the right answer- that we have black bears.   Some people said no bears; some people said brown bears; some people said we had both brown bears and black bears.”

Jamie Sajecki continued.

“One of the biggest myths that people have is that when a bear stands up, that bear is getting ready to attack. And I think that’s just been driven into our heads by all the trained bears that we see in movies, and Disney, and things like that, but when a bear stands up, you have to understand that their nose, and their sense of smell is unmatched. I mean they have a nose that is seven times more sensitive than a bloodhound. They can smell something from miles away; they also have great hearing. Now their eyesight is about comparable to human eyesight. It’s thought that they might be a little bit near sighted, to help them locate small berries and other things, insects that they eat on a regular basis. So when they stand up, that doesn’t mean they’re about to attack. What that means is, they’re curious about something, they may have heard something, they may have caught a smell of something. And so, standing up really allows them to investigate whatever it is they have heard or smelled. And also they might be looking for an escape route, if there was something that made them nervous.

“And so that’s really one of the more important things that we tell people, because you know a lot of times people will say ‘the bear was standing up, it was getting ready to attack’, where really that’s just an inquisitive behavior. It’s not an aggressive behavior.”

When I asked Jamie about how much we could learn from looking at bear scat in the woods, she said it really varies. Bears will eat whatever is in season, but one thing they share with most humans is, they prefer to walk, and forage, where the going is easy. Again, Jamie Sajecki,

In the fall you will see,

. . “scat that’s just full of acorns.   And in the summer it’s just full of berries. And what’s pretty telling is that bears use the same trails usually over and over again. So, if we as people have put in a trail, they will use those trails because it’s easy to walk on those trails. It’s much easier to walk on those trails than it is to bushwhack your way through everything else. So, a lot of times people will find bear scat right on these trails.”

If you have a bear story you would like to share, please e-mail

For just a little more “mythbusting’ about black bears in Virginia, please tune in again to Allegheny Mountain Radio.


Story By

Bonnie Ralston

Bonnie Ralston is the Assistant Station Coordinator at WVLS and a Highland County news reporter. She began volunteering at Allegheny Mountain Radio in the fall of 2005. In 2006 she became an AMR employee and worked in Bath County for eight years as the WCHG Station Coordinator and then as the news reporter there. She began working in radio while in college and has stayed connected to radio, in one way or another, for more than thirty years. She grew up in Staunton, Virginia, while spending a lot of time on her family’s farm in Deerfield, Virginia. She enjoys spending time outside, watching old TV shows and movies and tending to her chickens.

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