What are the chances of seeing a black bear in the Virginia mountains? That depends. The time of year makes a difference. So does the area of the state in which one is traveling. Both Native American and white settlers hunted the black bear (Ursus americanus) for its hide, meat, teeth, and claws and for sport. With no controls, populations dwindled, and in some areas the bear was completely wiped out. However, bear numbers are now expanding thanks to modern conservation management by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Young bears that have been chased off by adult females are spotted these days in some unusual places, such as the suburbs of Richmond, the state capital. Virginia has one of the largest black bear populations in the East with an estimated 4,500 or more animals. Shenandoah National Park alone, serving as a 100-mile-long mountain refuge, has the highest black bear density in the country. A game department trapping and tagging program over a 10-year period estimated a bear population in excess of 1.5 bears per square mile. The park covers 300 square miles. According to the estimate, there were more than 450 bears in the park. In fact, the number of bears in Virginia has increased to the point that nuisance bears destroying corn or raiding rural trash cans are routinely trapped and moved to sections of the state such as southwest Virginia where the bear population is still small.
Late spring and early summer are good times to see rambling bears. The females are getting ready to mate againbears reproduce every two yearsso the overgrown youngsters are forced out on their own. Black bears are shy and prefer in almost every case to put as much distance as possible between themselves and humans. In Virginia, bears have no history of aggression. But they are big (up to 400 pounds) and truly wild and thus unpredictable, and the encounter can quickly become dangerous if one gets between a sow and her cubs. Hikers who see a bear should give it plenty of room, watch from a safe distance, and store the incident in the archives of memory.
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