By Katie Demeria
An increasing bear population could hurt local farmers' crops as autumn settles in and bears look harder for food before winter, even after a relatively quiet summer.
Fred Frenzel, wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Games and Inland Fisheries office in Edinburg, said that while spring causes black bears to approach more residences and cause damage, in the fall they seek out ripe corn crops.
"It can cause quite a bit of damage," Frenzel said. "I've seen aerial photographs of bear damage in corn fields where they've probably lost 10 to 20 percent of the field lately, and that's a considerable amount of damage."
The department, along with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, is trying to offer solutions to farmers. Those in Shenandoah County can take advantage of a bear population control permit that allows them to hunt bears as soon as they obtain the permit.
"It gives them an earlier start to the season, so they can start working on the bear problem before the bear causes the damage," Frenzel said.
Some farmers can also take advantage of crop damage permits, allowing them to shoot bears day and night -- other permits require them to abide by hunting rules, which includes hunting only during the day.
The bear population has grown in the Northern Shenandoah Valley largely due to the ideal habitats available throughout the counties that allow the animals to reproduce more.
"Twenty years ago, the hunters would take anywhere from 19 to 22 bear per year," Frenzel said. "Now they're taking 75 to 80 a year."
Usually spikes in bear activity occur during the spring and fall. Reports become less frequent in the summer due to the berries and natural foods available. This summer Frenzel said he has gotten fewer complaints because wild berries were doing well.
"But it'll pick up in the fall because, at that point, they're trying to fatten up for the winter," he said. "Bears know when the corn gets most flavorful, and they will take advantage of it."
Last year farmers saw a great deal of bear damage because the acorns did very poorly. In order to prepare for the winter, the animals were forced to seek out corn and apples.
While it is a little early to tell for sure how the acorns will do this year, Frenzel said they seem to be doing a lot better so far.
Part of Frenzel's department's goal is to educate the public about how to deal with the animals.
Keeping food sources such as bird feeders and garbage cans secure are good ways to keep them away, he said. And he pointed out that feeding them is not only illegal, but it could hurt the bear later on as it loses its natural fear of humans.
"People can get along with them, they just need to know what to do," Frenzel said. "They usually think of bears in one of two ways: as a big, fury, friendly creature, or they think they will eat their children. In reality, they are neither of those."
To learn more about how to live alongside bears, go to http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/bear/living-with-black-bears.
Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org