More learning about bears

In the first part of this pair of stories, Jamie Sajecki, a bear biologist with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries described a few behaviors of black bears, and some common myths about why they do what they do.

She reveals more, and paints a clearer picture of these intriguing, if sometimes intimidating, animals, and how treating them with respect is usually a human’s best choice. So, first, a longstanding myth: “Never get between a mama bear and her cubs.”

Contrary to popular belief, Sajecki explained,

“Basically the myth about sows and cubs is that if you run into a sow with cubs, or mother bear, it’s just imminent danger, your life is at risk, and that’s really not true. Ongoing research and practical evidence really clearly show that females seldom attack to defend their cubs, although they may if people provoke them, or harass them   The first thing that sows are going to do when they feel nervous is to send their cubs up a tree. Then they’ll either stand at the bottom of the tree, or run off and try to lead the danger off. The majority of incidents that happen between people and sows and cubs, happen because there’s a dog involved. So either the dog goes after the cubs, or the sow, or just kind of the dog being present.

Bears can certainly hear and smell a dog coming down the trail, but that doesn’t always mean they’ll get out of the way quickly enough.

Jamie Sajeki continued,

“So that’s a really good lesson for hikers or for anyone who is out in places where they might encounter bears is that dogs really can make a situation a whole lot worse, or create a situation that might not normally happen just because of this longstanding, very not a friendly relationship between dogs and bears that goes back forever.”

Finally, being as fond of “A Long Winter’s Nap” as I am, I wondered, ‘Do bears around here really sleep through the whole winter?’

“What kind of sparks this behavior where they’re in dens for the winter, it’s not the weather being cold, or snow or anything like that. What it is is, kind of their evolutionary response to a period of time during the year when there’s no natural foods, or very little. So, they go into dens, and that’s where obviously females have cubs. They all have cubs the same time of year, when they’re in their dens. And they give birth to cubs that are anywhere from half a pound to three quarters of a pound. They’re tiny.

So some bears will stay in these dens all winter, but the difference between bears and true hibernators is that they can wake up. They’ll get up some times for little periods of time, and in some areas of the state where food is available year round, especially younger bears, they might get up eat a little bit and then go back down. But it really depends more so on food availability. They have kind of an order that they go into dens, and the females who are going to have cubs will go in first and come out last.”

As many bear sightings as I’ve heard about in the last year, I wondered how there could be enough caves for them all. As most good scientists do, the game department has its research. Jamie referred to one of the studies in which she had participated.

“The majority of the dens in the western part of the state are in old big trees with a hollow in them somewhere. And they can fit into the tiniest of spaces, which is good for them because it helps conserve heat when they’re all kind of curled up in a small hollowed out tree. But they can also be under rock piles, under brush piles.

So, like the bear in the song, who went over the mountain, when you’re in the quiet woods this winter, just see what you can see.


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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