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Posted June 5, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Upcoming program will teach residents living near wildlife to grin and bear it

A black bear walks
A black bear walks along the edge of the woods in the backyard of a residence off Bowman Mill Road in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily file

A black bear looks for food
A black bear looks for food in a bird feeder in the backyard of a Strasburg residence. Rich Cooley/Daily file

A black bear is busy digging
A black bear is busy digging up sunflower seeds along the edge of the woods in the backyard of a residence off Bowman Mill Road in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

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By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

WASHINGTON, Va. -- There are few things scarier than coming face to face with a protective mother bear and her cubs on the forest trail or even seeing a black bear lumbering through your front yard. With bear populations increasing in Virginia, these scenarios could become more and more frequent in rural areas, but experts are confident that people and bears can co-exist peacefully, with prior knowledge and the proper precautions.

"There was a time bears had been reduced to such a low population," says Marshall Jones, a biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Research Center in Front Royal and member of the board of directors for the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection. Because of the increase in the bear population in wooded areas, the RLEP is offering its first program about bears, "Living with Black Bears in Virginia," which will take place at Rappahannock County High School in Washington, Va., from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The program is free and open to the public.

Though bears might have a reputation for attacking people and animals and generally being a menace if wandering through neighborhoods, Jones says the last thing a bear wants to do is pick a fight.

"The bear most likely will see you and run away," says Jones. Even a mother bear with cubs will be more concerned with helping her young to escape up a tree, even following them up the trunk herself, then she will with charging down wayside hikers.

"No one, in the entire state of Virginia, no one has ever been killed or seriously injured by a black bear," Jones says, explaining that records date back to colonial times. "Our goal is to keep it that way."

Still, bears can present a danger to unsuspecting people, and Jones says that education is the best weapon against a bear encounter.

"Black bears are pretty shy, and I consider them big chickens ... for their size," says Jaime Sajecki, black bear project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "The best thing to do is to just make yourself look big and back away slowly," she says. Never run away from a bear, she says. Bears are more concerned with avoiding danger, and once a comfortable space exists between human and bear, the animal will most likely run away, she says.

What attracts bears into residential areas is food, Sajecki says.

Residents who live near bear country should remove any traces of food they use outside, Jones says, and put trash out in the morning before trash pickup, rather than leaving it out all night.

"Bears love our trash and our bird food because it's just an easy meal; they don't need to spend time [searching for it]," Sajecki says.

She recommends not feeding birds between April 1 and Nov. 1, when bears are out of hibernation.

"The birds don't need to be supplementally fed," she says.

Cooking or eating outside, leaving trash out overnight or even feeding pets outside can lure a bear into the yard, and the more comfortable a bear becomes with being around humans, the more problems arise.

"If [a bear is] perceived as a public safety threat, then we have to come in and euthanize it, and that's really unfortunate," Sajecki says.

Keeping food in a screened-in area can also attract a bear.

"A screen won't keep out a bear," Sajecki says.

Keeping calm, though, is the best method of action, Jones says. If meeting a bear in your kitchen or even in the wild, you should keep your distance and clap your hands or make another loud noise like talking loudly to scare it off, he says.

In a worst case scenario, playing dead does not work with black bears, he says.

"If you're attacked by a black bear, you should fight," Jones says. He reiterates, however, that bear attacks or negative confrontations are extremely uncommon, and, in Virginia, unprecedented.

"Some people, they just get afraid ... they see a bear on their land and they wonder, 'Is this a problem?'" he says. "[Bears] don't look at us and see food. That's a good thing. So just seeing a bear's not a problem."

Their instinct is to flee from conflict, he says. Mostly bears forage for berries or other food native to the forests.

"When people live in an area with a lot of bears, it doesn't take much to be able to cohabitate and have no problems," Sajecki says.

"Living with Black Bears in Virginia" will offer participants information about bears and how to avoid confrontations with them. DGIF bear expert Jaime Sajecki will speak about bears and then take questions. A video provided by the DGIF will also give tips and will be available for order through the department's Web site, www.dgif.virginia.gov. Information from the program will also be available at the RLEP's Web site, www.rlep.org.

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