Bear necessities: Sightings in Shenandoah National Park up this year

Between 300 and 600 bears roam Shenandoah National Park each year. Park officials say a lack in food source has caused bear sightings, such as in picnic areas, to increase this summer.
Courtesy of Shenandoah National Park Between 300 and 600 bears roam Shenandoah National Park each year. Park officials say a lack in food source has caused bear sightings, such as in picnic areas, to increase this summer. Courtesy of Shenandoah National Park

Although increased bear sightings this year in Shenandoah National Park are causing some visitors to worry, park officials are offering insight into why that’s happening, as the height of black bear activity winds down during the late summer months.

Rolf Gubler, a wildlife biologist at the SNP, estimates there have been between 30 and 60 incidents involving bears this spring and summer, about twice as many as normal, all varied in nature and severity.

“It could be anything from a food incident or a persistent bear that follows a hiker or approaches too closely or the dog-bear incident in the Dickey Ridge area,” Rolf says.

Rolf is referring to an encounter in early August that left one dog dead on Snead Farm Fire Road near the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. According to a press release, a hiker was walking with two dogs on retractable leashes when the three encountered a mother bear and cubs. When confronted by the bear, the hiker ran. That’s when, according to the release, the mother bear attacked the trailing dog, which later died of its injuries.

The Snead Farm Fire Road and Loop Trail were closed to visitors for two weeks as park staff kept an eye on the area. While hikers can now access those trails, dogs are still not allowed.

Gubler estimates between 300 and 600 bears roam the park during the year. While bear attacks might be rare, encounters do happen. Gubler has been monitoring some of the high-profile confrontations.

“The reasons we’ve been seeing so many bear encounters is a delayed and reduced soft mass crop,” Gubler says. He explains that food, like blackberries and wineberries, didn’t bloom until later. Bears eat these berries during late spring and summer then transition into a more protein-rich diet during fall, feeding off things such as hickory nuts, acorns, apples and corn.

“Bears are opportunists—that’s why they push into picnic areas. They have to be on the move to find food,” Gubler says.

It’s during these wanderings when bears are more likely to be hit by cars on Skyline Drive, get into trash or encounter hikers.

Gubler says the Rocky Mountain Wildfire, which ravaged more than 10,000 acres of the park earlier this year, is also a factor in higher bear sightings. Officials believe some bears traveled between 10 and 15 miles outside the burned area in search of food.

He connects this movement to some of the encounters in the Loft Mountain area. He says an experienced backcountry hiker reported an unusually assertive bear in the South District. The hiker told officials a bear was not responsive to normal efforts to scare it away, and only moved after being poked by hiking poles.

But, hikers can breathe a sigh of relief. Active bear months are officially winding down, and although bears don’t go into hibernation during the cold months, they do enter a “winter lethargy” in late November as they increase their diets.

If you do see a bear, the best tactic is to remain calm. Park officials stress you should back away slowly—running can trigger the animal’s prey response. Gubler suggests carrying portable air horns, walking sticks, trekking poles or bear spray for protection.

And don’t misinterpret a bear’s signals. Officials say that when a bear stands on its hind legs or moves closer, it isn’t usually threatening behavior. The animal may be curious and trying to get a better view, or smelling the air.