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September 1, 2017

They rule the woods all over Fauquier and beyond

Photo/Shenandoah National Park
State game biologists estimate Virginia’s black bear population at 17,000.
Photo/Lawrence Emerson
A bear wanders past our house in June 2015.
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A burly fellow, our new neighbor would tip the scales north of 250.

We see him occasionally, most recently ambling down the hill behind our house near dusk Monday. He seemed pretty relaxed.

A few weeks ago, as the dogs and I trudged back up the long slope near the end of our morning walk, something made a sudden racket. Initially, I attributed the noise to a falling tree limb — not uncommon in our neck of the woods. Glancing left, I spied him shimmying down the trunk of a tall, straight red oak.

Fortunately, the dogs walked just ahead of me, oblivious.

We noticed the new guy in late spring as he ambled across the mowed field toward a dense clump of trees and bushes a couple hundred yards from our house.

Black bears have grown quite common in our little part of the planet about four miles north of Warrenton. We routinely see sows, cubs and large males. Long ago, we dialed back on the birdfeeders after coming home twice to find them mangled and dragged into the woods. Last summer, the backyard composter routinely got slapped around like a toddler’s plastic dish of Gerber’s mush.

In a nod to peaceful co-existence, we keep trash and dog food well secured.

In January 2015, a hunter bagged a 550-pounder just a couple miles from our house. Last winter, one even closer weighed in at 445.

But, not so long ago, spotting a bear in these parts remained rare.

I distinctly remember piling into the bulbous green Plymouth sedan as a youngster for a twilight bear-watching expedition along Skyline Drive. My late father, who worked four decades for Shenandoah National Park, routinely dealt with the big critters and, particularly, their increasingly common encounters with stupid humans. We heard scary tales of candy bars left in convertibles and attempts to lure bears with jelly for photos. Anyway, he drove us to a cliff overlooking a dump — no, not a “landfill” — that the park operated near Pinnacles in the early 1960s.

My brother and I, neither yet of school age, watched with wonder as a couple of bears slowly made their way into the pile of fresh garbage below us. We never had seen anything like it.

Still, we seldom saw the magnificent creatures, whose numbers decades earlier had dwindled because of habitat loss (including the American chestnut’s demise) and overhunting.

In the early ’80s, I had my first close encounter on a solo hike to Kennedy’s Peak in the Massanutten range. Nearing the summit, I spied a large, dark shape under a hemlock tree along the trail about 20 yards away. A bear!

Nervously, I swapped camera lenses and carefully moved to my left to improve the angle. But, I stepped on a dry stick. It snapped like a firecracker, and the bear bolted down the slope with breathtaking speed.

It proved to me what my father had told us: A mature bear can run with a thoroughbred for the first 100 yards.

No photo.

Living the last three decades on part of the farm where Ellen grew up, I’ve enjoyed dozens of bear sightings — also common on the weekly drive through the national park to Luray, my hometown. In the last 12 months, I’ve seen bears at least 25 times. But, it never seems routine.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries estimates the population has increased to 17,000 statewide. That represents a significant recovery. Found only in a few western Virginia counties in the 1920s, bears these days show up in the far reaches of Tidewater — even in Virginia Beach, the commonwealth’s largest city.

My father used to say that an adult male needs a territory of at least three square miles. And, they can roam over far larger areas. The park staff used to trap “problem” bears, tranquilize them and truck the big beasts to the George Washington National Forest, sometimes more than 100 miles away. Often, those tagged bears would return within a week, thanks to incredible homing instincts.

They don’t have great vision. But, an acute sense of smell and other strengths more than compensate.

Despite a defensive tackle’s bulk, our neighbor moves like a point guard — fast and fluid.

The dogs twice have chased him but haven’t gotten close. Thankfully.

I worry about that. One of our vets recently told me about a medium-sized dog that got swatted. It required a lot of stitches but survived the damage 4-inch claws and awesome strength produced.

Bear spray, more commonly used in the Rockies and Alaska, starts to sound like a wise purchase. I more carefully scan the farm road and the woods ahead during our morning hikes.

State game officials say they lack enough information to estimate Fauquier’s black bear population. Certainly no expert, I’d bet more than a dozen live within a couple miles of our house. A repairman doing work around the place last summer watched a sow and two cubs pass through the yard and then the next day, a huge male, taking his sweet time.

I give them respect and a wide berth, even though bears normally avoid conflict. Food and cubs with their mom represent the greatest dangers.

But, I like living in a place where Mother Nature reminds me that, when it comes to speed and strength, another species has it all over humans. We’ll reserve the debate about relative intelligence for another day.
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