HMNs Attend Black Bears 101

Part 1 Training for a Statewide “Living with Bears” Project Through the VDWR

Headwaters Master Naturalists came together for a beary good training on the evening of Monday, April 24th. We met at the McKinney Center for Science and Mathematics at Bridgewater College to hear from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (Virginia DWR) for “Black Bears 101: General Biology and Ecology of Black Bears in Virginia.” The program was presented by District Wildlife Biologist Justin Folks and facilitated by Courtney Hallacher, DWR Statewide Wildlife Education Coordinator, who has developed a bear awareness public education partnership with Virginia Master Naturalists.

Black bears are the wild bears of Virginia. They were nearly wiped out after European settlement of Virginia but have made a comeback to their home range, and their range is most of the state. We learned a little about how the wild bear population is professionally managed in Virginia and how their population and their behavior fluctuate during low to high mast (fruit and nut production) years. Human/bear interactions also fluctuate between seasons with higher activity in warmer weather.

We quickly learned that “bears are a walking stomach” and they are incredibly omnivorous and wily at acquiring food. We saw a series of pictures of a black bear balancing on a wire to reach a hanging birdfeeder. (Birdseed is surprisingly high in calories!) However, feeding bears is illegal in Virginia. This of course pertains to baiting bears for hunting and feeding them for wildlife watching. But it also means that it is illegal to unintentionally feed bears such as allowing them to get in unsecured birdfeeders, garbage, compost or beehives.

We learned some of the recommended ways to deter bears from property. Folks recommended electric fences, hazing them with airhorns, and harmlessly shooting them with paint ball guns. However, for first encounters, he recommends just shouting or banging pots and pans to scare the bear off the property.

Should someone encounter a black bear in the wild, calmly walk away (don’t run) while getting the bear’s attention by announcing your presence, perhaps by saying, “hey, bear.” Folks said the wild black bear will likely want to avoid human interaction. Bears cannot see well so they may stand up to get a better look and they may bluff charge. 

He said that most problem bear situations in this area begin when a bear enters a yard to eat from a food source such as from a birdfeeder or pet food left outside. Residents often think such encounters are cute and do not deter the bear. However, bears quickly become habituated regarding where to easily find food and how to associate food with humans. Such habituated bears are hard to repel. They cause property damage, and they keep returning. And if a bear enters a human’s living structure or inappropriately makes contact with humans, the animal may be put down or “dispatched.”

We also learned some about bear mothers (sows) and their cubs’ behavior. Folks said that biologists and conservation officers do not assume that a lone cub is orphaned unless the mother’s carcass is found. Often a mother will try to get her cubs to safety and come back later when she feels it is safe to retrieve them. Folks told about a situation at a garbage dumpster by which cubs were apparently left alone. The worried public came to frequently check on the cubs. VA DWR authorities suggested leaving them in peace, and the mother bear left with the cubs.

We also learned some about humans’ reactions to black bears in trees in residential areas. Folks stated that if a bear is up a tree, it is either feeding or frightened. Again, the bear needs to be left alone by people, and dogs, before feeling safe enough to move to safety.  

Mange, a sometimes devastating and highly contagious skin disease caused by a mite, is a problem that bears face in Virginia. Bears with mange should be reported to Virginia DWR at  Or call the VA Wildlife Conflict Helpline: (1-855-571-9003). We heard a little about how mange has progressed and is managed in Virginia’s wild bear population.

Finally, we learned about resources for living with bears in Virginia. Bear Wise ( helps people live responsibly with black bears. DWR operates a telephone VA Wildlife Conflict Hotline: (1-855-571-9003).  Linda Masterson’s “Living with Bears Handbook” revised and expanded second edition is another recommended resource. You can purchase the book through

The April 24th presentation was part one of a two part Living with Bears Training for Headwaters Master Naturalists. Those who attended may participate in the optional part two which will be Wednesday, May 10th at 6:30 pm, again at Bridgewater College’s McKinney Center, Room 124. Sign up for this session on the Opportunities calendar in Better Impact.

After HMNs are fully trained by both sessions, we will be eligible to work with chapter coordinator Pam Gray on behalf of Virginia DWR to help educate the public about best practices for limiting negative human/bear interactions. You can read more about the program from Pam’s earlier article here: Living with Black Bears in Virginia. Or contact Pam for more information on this exciting new collaboration between the Virginia DWR and Virginia Master Naturalists chapters.

– Stephanie Gardner, April 2023

Photo at top courtesy of the Shenandoah National Park, from their Facebook post about being “Bear Aware.”

From Living with Bears HMN project coordinator Pam Gray:

Living with Black Bears in Virginia Part 1 Training is available in video for those who missed the in-class session on April 24th. It is not a recording of the class, but an official DWR training video. Those of you who were unable to attend Part 1 in person, but want to attend Part 2 and participate in the Living with Black Bears Project may watch this video (and earn the same CE) and be eligible for project participation.

Also, VMN volunteers may watch this training video and receive CE credit just for watching, even if you’re not interested in working on the project for volunteer hours.

You may watch this training video here: