Some trails closed in national park due to bears

Bear activity in portions of Shenandoah National Park have resulted in closures of certain trails. All of the Big Run Loop trail is closed as well as the section of the Big Run Portal trail from the Big Run Loop to the Patterson Ridge trail.

Sally Hurlbert, a public information officer for the park, said a hiker reported an unusual encounter with a bear.

“We got a report from a hiker that said that he was sitting on a rock having a snack and he looked around and there was a bear about five feet away,” Hurlbert said. “He was surprised it was that close and he did everything you’re supposed to do to get it to leave – clapped his hands and waved his arms. The guy then felt compelled to hit him with a hiking stick, at which point the bear did go away.”

Hurlbert said that bear encounters do occur in the park but that the behavior of this particular bear was unusual enough to merit the trail closures. Park biologists are now tasked with finding the reason for the bear’s lack of inhibition. Hurlbert said biologists are considering two theories.

“The bear was very comfortable around a human and that leads us to believe that it’s a bear that’s used to people,” Hurlbert said. “The place where we closed the trail is very near several trails and campgrounds and he may have been rewarded in the past by being fed by humans either directly or indirectly by eating trash or food left by them. It’s possible that it’s just not afraid of people.”

The feeding of bears is vehemently prohibited in the park, as associating humans with food is not exactly the best recipe for bear-human symbiosis.

Another theory that could potentially explain the behavior has to do with the bear’s food sources.

“We had a dry spell in April followed by some rainy weather and it appears that the food they’re normally eating is delayed,” Hurlbert said. “They’re usually eating berries and cherries and they aren’t ripe right now. It could just be that they’re hungry. We’re hoping in the next week or two the bears will be getting more to eat as those berries become riper.”

In addition to the trail closures, camping has been temporarily disallowed on the portions of the Appalachian Trail that run close to the area in question. Hiking is still permitted on those trails.

Hurlbert urged park goers to educate themselves on the behavior of bears and best practices to avoid dangerous interaction and increased acclimation to humans. A park news release offered the following safety tips:

  • Never feed or approach a bear. Stay 50 yards away from the bear.
  • Never store food or scented items in a tent.
  • Remain calm if you encounter a bear.
  • Make sure the bear has an escape route.
  • Avoid direct eye contact. Never run from a bear – slowly back away.
  • To scare the bear away, make loud noises and make yourself look as big as possible by waving your arms. If you are with someone else, stand close together with arms raised above your heads.
  • The bear may utter a series of huffs, make popping jaw sounds by snapping its jaws and swat the ground. These are warning signs that you are too close. Slowly back away, and avoid direct eye contact. Do not run.
  • If a black bear stands on its hind legs or moves closer, it may be curious and trying to get a better view or detect scents. It is usually not a threatening behavior.
  • Black bears will sometimes “bluff charge” when cornered, threatened or attempting to defend a food source. Stand your ground, avoid direct eye contact, then slowly back away and do not run.
  • If the bear does not leave, move to a secure area or at least 200 yards away.

Bear spray should be used only as a last resort. Direct the spray at the bear’s sensitive nasal and eye areas.  If a black bear attacks, fight back – hit the bear’s eyes or nose.

REPORT INCIDENTS

Report encounters with bears or people feeding bears in the park to park staff. Their emergency line is 800-732-0911

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com

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