Black Bears 101 -- Shenandoah National Park


For me personally, encountering a wild Black Bear in their territory, on their terms, is always an exciting and memorable experience. My photographic passion is the Black Bear - they are held in my highest regards and have my greatest respect. I can vividly recall each Black Bear I've ever photographed and exactly where I encountered it. I spend countless hours in the mountains each year, seeking more information and more photographs of these magnificent animals.

Many people visit my Black Bear pages and Blogs each day. I've had visitors from each of the 50 states as well as from other countries. It is my hope they find enjoyment in the photos and video clips, and also come away with more insight, respect and appreciation for the wild Black Bear than they had before.

Streaming Media -- Short Video Clips of Black Bears

View My Black Bear Video Playlist On YouTube

For millions of years, these magnificent animals have withstood the test of time against larger predators and Earth's climate changes, including a few Ice Ages. They have managed to evolve and adapt to avoid species extinction, while many larger predators didn't. Their reliance on forested habitat has greatly influenced their evolution. They survived, reproduced, adapted, and spread out across North America. Black Bears avoided larger predators by staying in the forest and adapting to trees and thick mountain foliage. This may be the reason they are rarely seen in wide-open spaces, unlike their larger cousins the Grizzly.

Their apprehension is often mistaken for aggression. Generally they are shy and will usually turn and amble away when approached. Their seemingly timid disposition is attributed to their earlier co-existence with more larger, powerful predators which necessitated being passive and inhabiting trees for escape routes.

The Bear Facts
The following is a compilation of information from various wildlife agency Web sites, along with some of my own notes from personal experiences. Bear country, while a wonderful place to be, can also be dangerous. This information is not meant to be a substitute for good judgment, or used as an instructional tool for any bear country activities.

While most human-bear interactions are harmless, serious injury or death can occur if a bear is provoked or it decides to attack even if unprovoked. While any encounter with a black bear can be dangerous or even deadly, hikers and backpackers may have an even higher risk due to isolation from immediate help and rescue.

Respect the Black Bear. Remember, you are a visitor in its world. Let the Black Bear be and it will let you be. Black Bears are far more likely to enhance your wilderness experience than spoil it. Knowing how to interpret their behavior and act responsibly is part of the thrill of sharing the mountains with these amazing animals. Keep in mind that they only know the law of the wild, not mans law; therefore they do not know the repercussion of their actions if they are forced to act in defense. Remember, for every action there is a reaction.



    • Colors: Black, brown, blond or cinnamon (mainly all black in Va.)
    • Size: Adults measure about 3 feet at shoulders and 5 to 6 feet when standing upright.
    • Weight: Adults weigh 125 to 425 pounds Males are generally larger than females.
    • Lifespan: Approximately 20 years for wild bears.
    • Eyesight: Similar to humans, but are more near-sighted.
    • Sense of Smell: Excellent, can span miles.
    • Attributes: Very agile, climb trees well, good swimmers, and can run as fast as 35 mph.
    Bears are the youngest of the carnivore families, having arisen from doglike ancestors millions of years ago. The earliest bears had the characteristics of both dogs and bears. Carnivores walk on the tips of their toes, but bears don't. Bears are plantigrade, walking with the entire lower surface of the foot on the ground (like humans). Bears have 5 toes, each with curved, nonretractable claws. They walk in a shuffling, flat-footed manner. They also are extremely agile for their size and sometimes stand erect on their hind feet to see and smell better. Their short but powerful legs enable black bears to run up to 35 miles per hour for short distances. They can climb easily and swim well.

    The thing about bears that perhaps fascinates people the most is their remarkable intelligence. They are the most intelligent native nonhuman animals in North America, and many modern bear biologists accredit them with the equivalent IQ of the great apes. Bears are highly evolved social animals and they're all individuals.

    Despite being quadrupeds (using four legs), bears can sit and stand similarly to humans.

    Bears depend on their acute sense of smell for information about the world around them. Bears are believed to have the best sense of smell of any animal on earth. For example, the average dog's sense of smell is 100 times better than a humans. A blood hound's is 300 times better. A bear's sense of smell is 7 times better than a blood hound's (or 2,100 times better than a human). Bears have an incredible sense of smell because the area of their brain that manages the sense of smell, called the olefactory bulb, is at least 5 times larger than the same area in human brains even though a bear's brain is one third the size. Bears also have highly developed noses that contain hundred of tiny muscles and let them manipulate them with the same dexterity as people's fingers. The surface area inside their 9 inch noses also has hundreds of times more surface area and receptors than a human's.

    A bear's hearing ability is excellent, and like dogs, bears hear high pitches, exceeding human frequency range and sensitivity.

    All bears are nearsighted, but can see moving objects at long distances. They also exhibit color vision.

    Bears use their sense of smell like we use our sense of vision, next being their hearing, and vision is third.



    • Flexible social structure that allows bears to function at low densities or at concentrated food sources with reduced chance of injury.
    • Bears do fight but more often use avoidance, restraint, and posturing to prevent injury.
    BEARS CAN BE VERY SOCIAL. While bears do not join in hunts, they can co-exist in very close proximity to each other. The bears of a region are usually familiar with one another and meetings consist of complex social exchanges.

    • Body language and vocalizations to communicate with each other
    • Dominance hierarchy (pecking order)
    • Personal space
    BEARS LIVE IN A DOMINANCE HIERARCHY. Mature males are at the top of the hierarchy, and sub-adults and cubs at the bottom. Bears establish and maintain their social position and place in the hierarchy by acting aggressively. Single females and females with cubs are almost always submissive to mature males but have a loose hierarchy within their own group. This hierarchy is based on age, size, and temperament; some bears are more aggressive than others.

    • Food and the search for it dominate a bear's life
    • Mating / Reproduction
    • Investigating novel stimuli; curiosity (bears are very curious and will inspect odors, noises & objects to determine if they are edible or playthings.)
    • Establishing and asserting dominance



    We, as humans, are responsible for our safety and the safety of the bears. Please help keep black bears wild by not feeding them. NEVER, EVER INTENTIONALLY FEED A BEAR! Remember that a bear is a wild animal and that it is detrimental, as well as illegal in Virginia, to feed a bear under any circumstances. Even the inadvertent feeding of nuisance bears is illegal. When bears lose their fear of people, problems will occur and often the bear will need to be destroyed.

    Subjecting bears to human food sources will eventually lead to trouble and often the death of the bear. Bears should never obtain human food, pet/livestock feeds, or garbage. Bears that receive these "food rewards" will become aggressive towards humans. To protect people, this type of bear (habituated) will usually have to be destroyed.

    Wild bears have a natural fear of humans and will attempt to avoid people - fed bears do not! Humans are only asking for trouble when they feed bears. Bears that are used to being fed are much more dangerous than non-fed bears, and sometimes have to be killed. There is an old saying that is very true- A fed bear is a dead bear.

    Bears are an important part of the park ecosystem and worthy of continued protection. With everyone's cooperation, bears and people can co-exist.



    3 ways to get in trouble with a black bear:

    * Actively threaten a cub (aka: "Death Wish")

    * Surprise a bear

    * Be careless with respect to food and other "smellables". Avoid wearing scented cosmetics and hair products. Some hikers & campers use sweet-smelling shampoo/body lotions/perfumes and then wonder why bears are paying attention to them. Come on people, this is stupid! Some simple discretion goes a long way in avoiding unpleasant bear encounters.

    Bears are strong and agile wild animals that will defend themselves, their young, and their territory if they feel threatened. All bears are potentially dangerous and able to inflict serious injury.

    They try to avoid humans and are considered non-aggressive except when injured, protecting their young, or protecting themselves. The black bear is inclined to escape from human presence.

    Except for breeding and raising young, black bears are generally shy, retiring, solitary animals. The black bear evolved as a forest animal and its life history is driven by the resources and constraints inherent in forested habitats.

    In reality, black bears represent a more realistic threat to humans than grizzly bears because of their increasing familiarity with human beings, high degree of intelligence, excellent memory, legendary strength and fighting ability. On his or her turf, and his or her terms, even a small bear is a potentially deadly opponent.

    In general, all bears should be considered as potentially dangerous and should be treated with respect. Black bears that appear unafraid of humans and will allow people to approach closely should be treated with utmost caution. Don't ever think for a minute that a bear within eyesight does not know you are there. They generally won't acknowledge your presence in most situations, but believe me, they know where you are.


    Bears have been around for millions of years because they can (and do) adapt to a wide range of habitats. Black Bears can be found in a variety of habitats, ranging from mature hardwood forests to 1- or 2-year old clearcuts comprised of thick, brushy regeneration intermixed with open weedy areas. Black bears are secretive creatures, preferring the dense cover of forest. They also use riparian and wetland areas as sources of food and cover, and particularly as travel corridors. Learn to identify seasonally preferred foods. Bears have a very predictable diet, and will seek out specific foods at specific times of year. Knowing these seasonal preferences can greatly assist you in knowing where to anticipate bears.

    Except for females with young and during the breeding season, black bears are solitary animals. During spring, summer, and fall, and especially during the breeding season, bears are active throughout daylight hours, but most commonly they are active around dawn and again at dusk. However, they rarely are seen because they are quite secretive and, for such a large animal, very quiet. Bears often become nocturnal where contact with humans is frequent. While the chances of meeting bears are relatively low, largely because of bears' disinterest in most people, you must know how to avoid, recognize, and deal with bear encounters.

  • DIET


    Bears work very hard to acquire sufficient food to survive and to prepare for the physiologically demanding overwintering period. The diet generally is a reflection of the foods available at a particular time of year.

    The diet of the black bear is almost exclusively composed of plants with a small amount of meat added to supplement their diet. Most of this meat is primarily composed of carrion, with very little in the way of fresh kill.

    Bears use a patchwork of habitats through the year, concentrating on different food sources as they come into season. Bears may feed up to 20 hours per day, accumulating fat (energy) prior to winter denning.

    Although they are carnivores, their diet is quite varied. They'll eat grubs and other insects, roots, flowers, grasses, acorns, fruit, and carrion, as well as ground hogs, deer, and other mammals. They will tear apart trees looking for bee nests and insects. Bears will even dig up underground wasp nests to eat the insects, nest and all.

    A black bears natural diet normally consists of: 59% berries and acorns, 28% grasses and forbs, and 13% insects and other animals including carrion.

    Bears are very strong and powerful animals; and routinely roll over huge rocks and logs in search of food. I have seen firsthand many huge rocks turned over by bears that were looking for grubs, insects and rodents. Their power is simply amazing.

    When black bears emerge from their dens in the Spring, they seek southerly facing slopes at lower elevations for forage and move to northerly and easterly facing slopes at higher elevations as summer progresses. Because food is relatively scarce during Spring, bears continue to lose weight until well into June.



    January and February are important times for black bears. While popular opinion has them sleeping away the winter months in a state of dormancy, females wake up briefly in January or February to give birth to one or more tiny bear cubs.

    Bears mate in June and July. Mating is a highly evolved ritual. Females typically do not breed until they are 3 years old. Once females come into season, they may leave scent trails, and male bears quickly hone in on the scent. More than one male may catch the female's scent and this can lead to some potentially violent showdowns between competing males.

    With the preliminaries out of the way, mating begins, usually lasting only a few minutes at first. The pair mate repeatedly over several days, and some of the later copulations may last as long as an hour. Sows may mate with one or several bears over the course of about a week. With the end of mating, the sow will have nothing more to do with the male. Both male and female black bears commonly have more than one mate and the most active mating occurs in July.

    After mating, the female may be pregnant, but that does not mean she will give birth to cubs. Bears, weasels and some seals have developed a process called delayed implantation. The fertilized egg develops into a small embryo called a blastocyst. This is where the interesting stuff begins. After this brief period of development, the fertilized egg suddenly stops growing and simply floats freely in the uterus for several months (i.e. Delayed Implantation).

    If female bears do not attain sufficient body fat or weight, their embryos will not develop. If a sow is in peak condition when she heads into her winter den, the embryo implants in the uterus and begins to develop. She'll wake up during January or February to give birth. Black bears give birth to between one and four cubs, with two being the most common.

    If the sow is not in peak condition at the onset of hibernation, her body will re-absorb the embryo and not give birth that year. This gives bears more control over their reproductive rate than just about any other animal. Once a deer is pregnant, they are pregnant, and winter pregnancy can be fatal. Animals diverting energy to reproduction during the difficult winter months run the risk of falling victim to predation.

    The black bear population does not have the ability to increase rapidly. Bears are among least productive mammals. In theory, a male and female black bear born this year - if they breed as soon as they reach sexual maturity and as often as possible, and if their offspring did the same - could in the space of ten years have grown to a population of 15 bears, assuming none died. By comparison, a pair of whitetailed deer could produce more than 1,000 descendants in 10 years!



    Newborn cubs are blind, helpless, and weigh about 7 to 10 ounces (the size of a "twinkie"). They locate their mother's nipples and suckle immediately after birth. Sows usually have 6 functional mammaries. During the denning period, sows may produce more than 50 lbs. of milk, metabolized from body fat. This milk is rich in fat and protein and nearly twice as high in kilocalories than either human or cow milk.

    After one month, their eyes open, and at two months, they begin to walk. They leave the den in about three months, and are weaned by seven months. Upon emerging from the den, cubs may weigh about 5-9 pounds and are covered with fine wooly hair.

    After the bears come out of the den, it is the mother's job to show her cubs what foods are good to eat, and where to find those foods. When a mother bear brings her cubs out of the den, one of the first things she teaches them is to climb a tree quickly when she gives them a signal. Father bears do not have a part in caring for the cubs or teaching them. Mother bears are affectionate, protective, devoted, strict, sensitive, and attentive with their cubs.

    The cubs remain with their mother through their first season, and will den with her that winter. Generally, the cubs are evicted in their second season, probably initiated by the mother when she comes into estrus. A female generally raises only one litter every two years. In more marginal environments such as northern Alaska, black bears keep their cubs with them an extra year and will breed every third year. Females tend to stay within part of their mother's home range, but the males are usually discouraged from staying. Sows tolerate female offspring within their home range but are less tolerant of male offspring. Males may remain on a sow's home range for one or maybe two years but will then be forced to move by the sow.


    In Autumn, bears eat heavily to fatten themselves for winter. Fall is a critical time for black bears, when they enter a state of hyperphagia, attempting to pack on the pounds for the long winter sleep.

    In Winter, bears den up and become dormant. Denning black bears enter a state of torpor, a modified form of hibernation. This drowsy condition allows bears to defend themselves (and their cubs) more effectively should a predator visit the den. They lapse into and out of a deep sleep, from which they may be roused. Body temperature is not drastically reduced. Respiration and heart rate decline noticeably. They do not urinate or defecate while dormant. During the time spent in the dens, bears are nourished and kept warm by the thick layer of fat, which they have built up during the fall.

      Den Sites
    • Black bears den during the winter months (typically from mid October into April) when food is scarce and the weather turns harsh.

    • Bears do not urinate or defecate during denning - they recycle their waste into proteins and other nutrients. By not defecating, bears keep their dens essentially scent-free, protecting them from potential predators.
    Black bears can take up residence in small dens, some scarcely bigger than a garbage can. Den sites include tree cavities, hollow logs, small caves, rock outcrops, the upturned root mass of a blown-down tree and areas beneath large roots, stumps, and logs. They'll occasionally excavate a den in the side of a hill near shrubs and sometimes will make a nest of leaves and brush. Tree dens predominate in Virginia.

    The onset of and emergence from denning is dependent upon food availability, but typically bears enter dens between mid-October and late November and emerge from dens during late March or early April.

    View my blog about Winter Denning for more in-depth information.



    Avoid surprising bears at close range. Whistle, talk, sing, or otherwise make noise when hiking in areas where visibility is limited and/or bear sign present.

    Avoid taking dogs, they may attract bears to you. A dog's valor may turn into retreat bringing an infuriated bear to you.

    Be alert to sign (droppings, markings, fresh tracks, etc.), sounds, or other indications of bears. Be particularly wary when hiking trails or other areas where bears concentrate.

    Food and beverages should never be left unattended. Foods with strong odors such as fish, cheese, sausage, and fresh meats should be stored in a food cache, a bear resistant container, or suspended 10 feet above ground. Carry all refuse and garbage out.

    Do not approach bears.

    A bear standing on its hind legs may only be trying to sense you better, not preparing to attack. Even a charge is often a bluff, ending abruptly short of physical contact.

    If you see a bear at a distance, turn around or make a wide detour. Keep upwind if possible so the bear will get your scent and know you're there.

    Avoid actions that interfere with bear movement or foraging activities.

    Be satisfied with a distant photograph, or use a telephoto lens. Many fatalities and injuries have been related to photography.

    Do not corner a bear. Allow them plenty of space and an escape route.

    If a bear stands on its hind legs, it is not being aggressive. It is trying to see, hear and smell you better in order to identify what you are. Talk firmly and in a low-pitched voice while cautiously backing away.

    Scents and use of perfume or cologne is sometimes an attractant to bears.

    Startled bears will often confront intruders by turning sideways to appear larger, make woofing and teeth clacking sounds, salivate, lay their ears back and slap the ground with their paws. These are warnings for you to leave the area.

    Mother bears are very protective of their cubs. A startled mother will often send her cubs up a tree while she stands guard at the bottom. This gives you an opportunity to leave without a confrontation. Mother bears try to avoid people, but if you surprise one, she might bluff charge to remove the threat.



    Watch bears for any aggressive behavior - snapping its jaws together, making a "whoofing" sound, or keeping its head down with ears laid back. Consider any bear that moves toward you aggressive. Bears are not usually aggressive animals and they will only attack if they feel threatened or are injured.

    Bears use a variety of sounds and movements to communicate its fear, concern, and defensiveness. The sounds include a loud blowing noise or snort and a sound made by smacking its jaws together, both the reaction of a scared or alarmed bear. The movements include a short lunge that may be accompanied by slapping the ground, which is a bears way of saying, "Move back". Another movement is a bluff charge, a discernable aggressive movement toward humans.

    Give a bear plenty of room, allowing it to continue its activities undisturbed. Every bear has a zone of danger or personal space - that is, the distance within which a bear feels threatened. If it changes its natural behavior (feeding, foraging or movement) because of your presence, you are too close. If you stray within that comfort zone, a bear may react aggressively in the form of a bluff charge, bodily contact, or even an outright attack.

    BEARS DEFEND PERSONAL SPACE. Bears have a critical personal space - an area around them that they may defend. Once you have entered a bear's critical space you have forced the bear to act - either to run away or be aggressive. The size of the critical space is different for every bear and situation.

    Some bears will bluff their way out of a threatening situation by charging, then veering off or stopping abruptly at the last second. Bear experts generally recommend standing still until the bear stops and then slowly backing away. A black bear may charge several times, veering off at the last moment, before making a hasty retreat. Whatever sort of show the bear may put on, it's vitally important not to run away.



    The difference between Male and Female Black Bears

    This determination cannot always be distinguished with certainty while in the field, unless of course it is a female accompanied by cubs. See my bear blogs for more male/female photo comparisons.

    A female Black BearThe females of the Black Bear species (sows) are typically smaller and leaner than the males. Their heads are more narrow with a flat looking forehead, plus their ears are generally bigger than a males ears. Female Black Bears are usually more shy and cautious when entering an area.

    A male Black BearThe males of the Black Bear species (boars) are typically bigger than the females. Adult males have more heavily muscled heads, necks, and shoulders than do females. The male head is wider and rounder than the females and the ears are generally smaller than a females ears. Male Black Bears are not as cautious when entering an area.

    Footnote: As with all things in nature, there are ALWAYS exceptions to every rule. Note the use of the word 'typically' above. The weight information is only useful for trying to make a quick determination in the field. I have personally seen several large sows that could mistakenly be identified as males (based upon the weight theory), which shows that hereditary traits can cause exceptions. The ears theory has exceptions also because nearly all juvennile bears will sport 'big ears' for the first 3-4 years of their lives.

Tips For Safe Travel in Bear Country
Whenever you travel in bear country, you have to accept the basic reality that you may encounter a bear. You must also accept the fact that there is a risk involved with being in bear country. Remember, the wilderness is their home, we are just visiting. It's highly likely that you are going to encounter a bear at least once during your life if you hike into bear country. And if you spend as much time as I do in bear country, then it can be multiple encounters per week or sometimes in just one day (but personally that is what I seek out, as bear photography is my passion).

Popular imagery has given black bears an unrealistically ferocious image, causing people to fear them more than need be. That being said, black bears can be dangerous animals, and deserve a healthy amount of respect. Bears are not as unpredictable and dangerous as Hollywood or the media would have us believe. Bears exhibit very predictable behavior. Bears communicate using body language, sounds and smells. This trait can be beneficial to people who are "bear aware" that come into contact with bears. Knowing how to interpret their behavior and act responsibly is a very important factor upon entering bear country.

Hiking at dawn or dusk will increase your chances of meeting a bear. Bear activity will intensify in spring when bears are hungry and first emerging from their dens, in July when mating is at its peak, and also in the fall when bulking up for winter denning.

Black bears should always be considered potentially dangerous. A black bear will usually detect your presence and flee the area before you notice (unless the bear has been conditioned to people and their foods).

    What To Do If You Unexpectedly Have A Sudden Encounter

  • Stay calm. Do not panic! Calm behavior has proven to be the most successful. Continue facing the bear and slowly back away.

  • Stand your ground OR back away slowly while facing the bear. Never run! Running can prompt the bear to give chase, and you cannot outrun a bear.

  • Some bears will bluff charge, then veering off or stopping abruptly at the last second. Bear experts generally recommend standing still until the bear stops and then slowly backing away. A black bear may charge several times, veering off at the last moment, before making a hasty retreat. Whatever sort of show the bear may put on, it's vitally important not to run away.

  • Give the bear plenty of room to escape. Bears rarely feel threatened unless they feel cornered or provoked.

  • Don't throw anything at a bear in close range; it may provoke a defensive attack.

  • If you surprise a bear, just back away slowly while facing the bear. This may reassure the bear that you mean it no harm.

  • Do Not "Play Dead" With a Black Bear (note: Black Bears eat carrion, which are dead things). If the bear becomes curious, it may rip you open just to see "what's inside"!

  • If a black bear attacks, it is suggested to fight back using everything in your power (fists, sticks, rocks, bear pepper spray, etc.). Black bears tend to be more timid than grizzlies and fighting back may scare the bear off. Playing dead or climbing a tree will not stop these kind of attacks, so your best recourse is to act aggressively and try to intimidate the bear by fighting back using any object available. Try to focus your attack on the bear's eyes and nose.

Always carry bear spray, and make sure that it is quickly accessible. It will do you no good if it is buried in your backpack or pants pocket. Bear sprays are an effective deterrent in very close range, emergency situations. When you find yourself in a situation where bear spray becomes necessary, you better be able to pull it out and activate it with little or no notice. It should be on your belt, and you should practice drawing it quickly. Bear spray will either disorient the bear to allow you to escape, or at the very least deter it from attacking. Once you have partially discharged a canister of bear spray it should be discarded. While the spray may deter attacks, the smell of pepper can act as an attractor.

  • Bear spray is not the same as personal defense spray, it must be E.P.A. registered. Many people mistakenly purchase and carry one of the numerous personal defense or law enforcement pepper sprays designed for use against other humans rather than bears. The products are definitely not the same! For defense against bears, be sure you only purchase and carry bear spray products that meet EPA standards and are clearly labeled "for deterring attacks by bears." Carrying the wrong product can create a false sense of security and put you at risk when it doesn't perform as needed during a bear encounter.

  • Bear spray must contain 1.3%-2% capsaicin and related capsaicinoids. Suggested spray distance is at least 25 feet in a cloud pattern lasting 6 seconds or more.

  • Do not pack it in a backpack or place in a pants pocket as seconds count and you may not get a second chance.
Bear spray is a good last line of defense, but it is not a substitute for vigilance and following appropriate bear avoidance safety techniques. Never intentionally approach a bear because you think you will be safe because you're carrying bear spray. Never approach and spray a passive bear to try to get it to leave the area. Bear spray is only meant to be used on charging or attacking bears.

Other Informative Resources
Video: Living With Black Bears in Va.
Va. Dept. of Game & Inland Fisheries
Va. Black Bear Management Plan
Va. Dept. of Game & Inland Fisheries
Black Bear FAQS Watchable Wildlife: The Black Bear
General Info: Black Bear
Va. Dept. of Game & Inland Fisheries
Shen. National Park: Black Bears
U.S. National Park Service
Shenandoah National Park - Bear Issues and Management
U.S. National Park Service
A Year in the Life of a Black Bear

Black Bear Attacks In Virginia
Virginia has a healthy, resident black bear population, the bulk of which is located west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially in Shenandoah National Park. For the past decade, the bear population has increased about 5 to 7 percent each year, bringing the state's current population to about 12,000, according to David Kocka, district wildlife biologist with the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries. Unprovoked bear attacks are very rare, and have never been documented anywhere in Virginia. Bears only become hostile if they are provoked or feel threatened. As of 2009, there are no records of any fatal Black Bear attacks on humans anywhere in Virginia.

The most recent "provoked" incident in the Shenandoah National Park happened a few summers ago when some park guests fed marshmallows to a bear through their cabin window, says park spokeswoman Claire Comer. "When they ran out of marshmallows, the bear tried to get into the cabin," Comer said. The bear had to be relocated to another part of the park because "once bears taste human food, they always go back for it. The sad part is that we couldn't capture the bear's cubs and they were separated from the mother," Comer said. "We call them, 'good bears gone bad'."

As for any bear attacks in Shenandoah National Park's history, there have only been some minor incidents (e.g. a researcher in the late 80's that got a swat from a bear that he was releasing from a snare trap). NOTE: I obtained this information in 2009 directly from an SNP biologist (Rolf Gubler) and the Deputy Chief Ranger (Pete Webster). Click here for my blog about Black Bear attacks

Overall Fatal Attacks In North America
Fatal attacks by Black Bears on humans are very rare. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, for every person killed by a Black Bear in North America, 60 are killed by domestic dogs, 180 by bees, and 350 by lightning. To date, only 60 people have been killed in Black Bear attacks across North America since 1900, and 45 of those deaths took place in Alaska or Canada, where there is usually little contact between bears and people. The fatal attacks that have occurred were primarily unprovoked, predatory assaults in remote areas in which the victim was eaten. There is no consistent explanation why 1 out of every 1/2 million Black Bears becomes a human predator.

Aversive Conditioning On Habituated Bears At Shenandoah National Park
In 2008, Shenandoah National Park started using aversive conditioning, a technique that involves changing animal behavior using unpleasant stimuli, to move habituated black bears (and deer) away from areas that humans use heavily. Two trained seasonal employees developed a database of events involving nuisance animals and chased animals out of problem areas by shooting them with non-lethal tools like slingshots and paintball guns. "We want to establish dominance over those animals that have become habituated to humans and drive them back to a wild state," explains Ross Gubler, a National Park Service biologist. "The goal is to create buffers around campgrounds, so we stop the aversive conditioning once they move beyond that area. Bears are smart enough to know where the boundaries are." Paintball pellets are especially effective with bears, he says: "They don't like the noise from the gun or the sting when a pellet hits. It usually only takes one hit to make a lightly habituated bear move on."

Food-conditioned animals that panhandle from hikers and cars pose a more serious threat, and usually have to be either aggressively conditioned or drugged and removed from the area. The park has trapped and relocated forty-five bears since 2000, although it only had to do one relocation after aversive conditioning was implemented in 2008. In the past wildlife managers trapped and relocated animals for minor nuisances, but this approach is becoming a last resort because it takes more time and resources. And it doesn't always work.

FOOTNOTE: I will not disclose the locations of the bears that I photograph, in order to protect them from being
subjected to a high degree of human exposure. However, I will state that the densest populations exist in the
federally designated wilderness areas of Shenandoah National Park (which consists of roughly 79,579 acres).
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