Following several vehicle crashes involving bears so far this season, the National Park Service is alerting drivers to take caution while visiting area parks.
“The best thing they can do is drive the speed limit,” said Sally Hurlbert, management specialist for Shenandoah National Park.
The park has put up "Bear Collision Area" signs along Skyline Drive, and on its Facebook page is cautioning drivers to respect the 35 mph speed limit and be on the lookout for deer and bears crossing the road.
If you see a bear, Hurlbert said, expect to see more.
Many wild animals breed in the spring, she said, so in the summer parents are often accompanied by their young. It’s not unusual to see a mother bear cross a road followed by one or more cubs.
The same goes for deer, skunks and other animals such as the family of grouse she saw the other day.
This is also the time of year bears are setting their yearlings free, Hurlbert said.
“[The yearlings] are trying to find their way in the world, establish their territory,” she said.
Add to that the male and female animals looking for mates, and she said there’s a lot of potential for wildlife crossing the road to come in contact with humans.
So far this season, she said, “I believe we’ve had four accidents involving bears.”
The park, which stretches 105 miles from Front Royal at its north end to Waynesboro on the south end, hosts millions of visitors every year along Skyline Drive, a scenic driving route through the park where travelers can access day hikes, campsites, off-trail camping and picnic spots.
The park is also a prominent stop along the Appalachian Trail, a 2,100-mile walking trail from Georgia to Maine.
This week, the park service announced it temporarily closed a short portion of the Appalachian Trail to overnight camping in the interest of protecting visitors and bears alike.
The 2.5-mile stretch of trail between Riprap Trailhead (mile 90 on Skyline Drive) and the Wildcat Ridge parking area where the trail crosses Skyline Drive (mile 92.5) will still be open to hikers and those accessing campsites but is closed to off-trail camping, a news release from the park service explains. Its goal in closing the trail is to “minimize the potential for human-bear conflicts,” the release says.
Hurlbert said the decision was made after a bear gained access to campers’ food, posing a risk to other campers if bears come to the site looking for food.
“[It’s] what we call food rewards,” Hurlbert said.
The park has rules against feeding the wild.
Campers are advised to hang any food supplies from trees, at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet out from the tree trunk so bears can’t reach it.
“We just don’t like bears to associate humans with food,” Hurlbert said.
The decision to close the portion of trail in the southern part of the park to campers is aimed at safeguarding local visitors as well as through-hikers, she said.
However, since black bears are common throughout the park, the park service recommends a number of precautions to keep visitors safe:
• Never feed or approach a bear. Park regulations require at least 50 yards to safely view a bear.
• Never store food or scented items (such as toothpaste) in your tent.
• Remain calm if you encounter a bear.
• Make the bear aware of your presence by speaking in an assertive voice, singing, clapping your hands, or making other noises.
• Make sure the bear has an escape route.
• Avoid direct eye contact and never run from a bear. Instead, slowly back away.
To scare away the bear, make loud noises by yelling, banging pots and pans or using an air horn. Make yourself look as big as possible by waving your arms. If you are with someone else, stand close together with your arms raised above your head.
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, avoid direct eye contact, and 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 in the air. 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.
“Use bear spray only as a last resort and direct the spray at the bear's sensitive nasal and eye areas,” the news release says. “Black bear attacks are extremely rare. If a black bear does attack, always fight back. If you have to fight back, hit the bear's eyes or nose.”
In general, Hurlbert said, giving black bears space is paramount.
“When you’re in their safety zone, they get nervous,” she said.
On the trails, she said, “[M]ake some noise while you’re walking along.”
“The sound will proceed you,” she said. “It’ll wander off.”
Report any incidents involving bears to the park’s emergency line, 800-732-0911. For more information, visit www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/bear/living-with-black-bears