By Kaitlin Mayhew -- email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Black bears have been rummaging through trash bins and garbage cans in some new areas of Warren County this year.
Michael Dawson, who lives on Commonwealth Drive, said that he's always seen bears in the area, but this year has been the worst of all.
"I have a 400-pound bear that has twice been into my garage, and we have come face-to-face with it twice in the last two weeks," he said.
Dawson said that one morning he put his garbage can out for pickup at 4:30 a.m. and that by 4:45 a.m. the bear was in his driveway.
"It makes you scared to be outside of your house after dark or let your kids or the dog go outside," he said. "If a human was entering my house or property I would have the right to use deadly force I felt threatened, but if I shoot a bear I will prosecuted for poaching and using a firearm within city limits."
Similar concerns were voiced during a public hearing at a Sept. 12 Town Council meeting by residents Patricia Kaesir and John Fusto, who both live on Happy Ridge Drive.
Kaesir and that she has had several problems with a bear at her house and has had no luck deterring it. She said she tried bright lights and loud noises, and nothing seemed to work.
"I tried keeping my garbage in my garage [as advised by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries] and have since had problems with mice and maggots," she said.
Kaesir said that when she called she was told she could do nothing to harm the bear, not even throw anything at it.
"I feel the laws protect the bear and not me as a person," she said. "I am now afraid to take my dog out at any time of the day or night."
Fusto said he thinks the problem has gotten worse since he first moved to the area, which was seven years ago.
"I think there's a huge bear problem in this town," he said. "And when you call for assistance they tell you 'Don't hurt the bear, they were here first.'"
At the meeting Mayor Timothy Darr responded, saying, "We are very concerned about this and we are definitely looking at this and looking at it very seriously."
Town Manager Steve Burke said is aware that bears have been seen more frequently in the area. He said the town is exploring several options such as a heavy-duty trash cans, and speaking with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to consider if some sort of removal program can be re-adopted.
"You shouldn't do anything to provoke the bear more so for your safety," he said.
Front Royal Public Works administrative assistant Lynn Mitchell said she has been getting more calls from residents interested in having their trash cans bear-proofed, which consists of the bin being outfitted with heavy-duty chains.
Mitchell said as far as she has heard from callers, the bear-proofing is working.
"I only remember one call saying it didn't work," she said. "We're definitely not going to stop them, we're just going to deter them."
Jaime Sajecki, bear project leader at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said that the bear population is not necessarily growing to an unnatural number, but returning to its former state.
She said the entire state was the native range for black bears, but that in the late 1800s unregulated hunting and loss of habitat due to cutting down forests for agricultural purposes left the animals almost completely gone by the early 1900s.
Since the development of hunting seasons that start later in the year, to prevent the shooting of pregnant bears, and some re-growth of agricultural land, the bear population is now growing at a rate of about 9 percent to 10 percent a year.
The state's bear management plan, which started in 2001, dictates what should be done about bear populations in each area.
"All were either increased or stabilized," said Sajecki.
However, she said the agency is working on a new plan in which she thinks the goal for certain areas may change to decreasing the population. The area involved in the plan would include Frederick, Shenandoah, Rockingham and Warren counties.
According to Sajecki, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has no plans to restart a bear relocation plan.
"Most people want bears taken away because they got into their bird feeder. The problem is what is attracting the bear to the area," she said. "That's not the only bear in that area. We can't just keep picking up bears and moving them around."
She also said the relocation program was used to move bears to areas where they were trying to increase populations.
"Moving bears doesn't really solve any problems. There are certain things that people can do to prevent bears from being a problem," she said. "They don't want to be around people, they just love what we put out."
Sajecki said that most people who are afraid of bears simply don't know much about them.
"Bears have the capability of being dangerous and causing a lot of damage, but they rarely ever do," she said. "They are not aggressive, they are very easy to scare off. In my personal opinion they are very lazy. They will find the easiest thing they can eat, and they will just sit there and eat it until it's gone or you take it away."
She also pointed out that no one has been killed or attacked by a bear in Virginia, other than in a couple of hunting incidents.
Fred Frenzel, district wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, is responsible for taking phone calls for five counties, including Warren.
He said he gets a lot of calls from the Front Royal area, primarily because Shenandoah National Park is so close.
"I don't think I've necessarily been getting more calls this year, but I've been getting calls from different areas," he said.
Frenzel said he used to get a lot of calls from the Royal Arms Apartments and he knows that recently they got new trash bins that can be better secured.
"It may be that some of these bears are looking elsewhere [for food]," he said. "They had gotten habituated to going there and getting a free meal and they may be starting to look in some of the neighboring areas."