Whar? In Virginia, just about everywhar.
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Shh, don’t wake the bears. “Aw, they’re hibernating,” you say. “You couldn’t rouse ’em with a gunshot.”
Tell that to Michael Vaughan, bear biologist and Virginia Tech professor emeritus, who’s studied bears for 30 years—mainly the American black bear, Virginia’s only bear species, population 12,00-16,000 and growing 9.5 percent a year. Ask Vaughan about the time he went to dart a sow in her den and she squirted right out between his legs. (Big? “She looked big at the time!” he laughs.)
Bears don’t truly hibernate so much as they go dormant: In winter, they do doze and their heart rates drop as low as eight beats per minute, but their temperatures remain stable and they rouse easily. From 1987 until last year, Vaughan and his team studied denning bears up close, in a special barn that could hold six. In addition to gathering demographic info for the state and data for grad student projects, the scientists examined phenomena of import to human medicine.
For instance, denning bears neither eat nor drink nor eliminate any waste. “They essentially shut down their kidney function,” says Vaughan; humans would need dialysis. Also, their high-fat diet (primarily vegetation) causes no cholesterol problem. Bone production continues despite the bears’ near-total immobility, conditions under which humans would develop osteoporosis. Also, females all give birth around the same time whether they bred in early summer or late; the fertilized egg doesn’t implant, so the 60-day gestation is timed so cubs are born in the den. (What, they keep their legs crossed? Vaughan chuckles: “That’s the question!”) Scientists worldwide would love to know how all this works.
The rest of us think of bears less as medical marvel and more as fearsome predator, top of the food chain. Bear biologist Jaime Sajecki is quick to point out that there are no unprovoked attacks by black bears on record in Virginia. “They’re capable of inflicting a lot of damage, but they don’t do it,” she says. “Their first defense mechanism is to climb up a tree. You see this gigantic animal perched on a tree limb, like this giant, fuzzy bird.” (Maybe a 600-pound bird.) As Vaughan says, “They want to avoid people as much as people want to avoid them.”
And that’s as it should be. As Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ Black Bear Project Leader, Sajecki oversees the statewide management of black bears—which, she says, often means “people management.” Last year in Virginia, eight bears were euthanized because they broke into homes. “If you move them, they’ll just come back,” says Sajecki. The key is managing the attractant. “If there’s nothing the bear wants to eat on your property, they won’t stay. They want what’s easy.” Birdseed, for example. Bears can meet their 20,000-calorie daily (autumn) need “in two minutes by knocking down your bird feeder,” says Sajecki, noting that seven pounds of seed contains 12,000 calories. Stow the feeder from April to December. And garbage—Sajecki says that 70 to 80 percent of all nuisance complaints are about feeders and trash. Feed pets indoors. Wintergreen, after reporting the highest number of nuisance incidents of any community in the state, last year became the state’s first “Bear Smart Community,” applying guidelines from the British Columbia-based Bear Smart Society community-wide. So far, so good.
Bears are not stupid; they’re opportunists, and Sajecki marvels at their intelligence. Once, as a grad student in California, she found a cub in a culvert trap, screaming bloody murder. Seeing the sow nearby, she let the cub out. “The mother just sort of huffed at me,” she says. “Every morning, that cub was in the trap. Seven nights—it was safe, it got a pretty good meal, and she could go off and do what she needed to do. I feel like she kind of took advantage of the situation. I called it the Steel Baby Sitter.”
Editor's note: Since press time, we've run across the wonderful den cam at the North American Bear Center (Bear.org): An infrared video camera has been trained on Lily, a 3-year-old American black bear, and captured her giving birth to a cub on January 22. Find Lily on Facebook as well.