The number of conflicts between humans and black bears has surged recently in Virginia, correlating with a rise in the population of the state’s sole bear species.
Hungry black bears are cleaning up after littering campers on the Appalachian Trail.
Hikers have spotted several bears near the Campbell and Lamberts Meadow shelters, prompting the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club to post warning signs in nine locations.
“This is the time of year when moms and babies are out and these bears are eating,” said Diana Christopulos, trail club vice president. “People have been literally leaving food out for the bears.”
While the National Park Service manages the trail and rangers cite violators, local groups are tasked with helping keep the trail clean and safe.
Bear sightings near shelters are “an example of bears being habituated to human activity,” said Andrew Downs, director of the southwest and central region of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which is based in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
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Ridgerunners are hired by the conservancy to hike specific sections of the trail and document trash findings and bear sightings. In a July 12 Catawba Mountain Ridgerunner report, Ridgerunner Eric West wrote that an adult bear lingered close to the Lamberts Meadow Shelter. West found “quite a bit of trash” including a nearly full 26-ounce bag of trail mix near the camping area.
A separate report sent to the conservancy from a hiker said a bear was sighted 50 feet behind the Campbell Shelter and the hiker “had to chase” the bear away. The hiker said packs of beef jerky and uneaten food littered the shelter floor.
“We need a public awareness campaign to call attention to the fact that it’s not OK” to feed bears, Christopulos said. “Everyone in rural Roanoke County knows we have a lot of bears.”
And they roam far beyond reach of the region. Bear sightings prompted park rangers in mid-May to temporarily shut down the Humpback Rocks picnic area off the Blue Ridge Parkway just outside Waynesboro.
Nearing extinction in 1900, the bear population statewide -- as well as across the eastern U.S. -- dramatically has increased since, with as many as 18,000 bears currently inhabiting Virginia, according to the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
And the big, burly mammals are feasting.
An adult black bear typically spends the summer and fall hunting for chokecherries, pokeberries, huckleberries, acorns and hundreds of pounds of other natural food. A hungry bear bulking for winter hibernation will pursue people food when it's within paw's reach.
Feeding a bear is illegal in Virginia, but the opportunistic creatures tend to satisfy their appetites even without meal offerings, by dismantling bird feeders and ravaging trash cans.
Christopulos and her club are pleading with hikers and campers to safely store their food and properly dispose of trash. Christopulos said many bears live close to the VA-311 section of the trail, with Carvins Cove serving as an adequate habitat.
In the past year, a McAfee Knob volunteer task force was created to help hikers avoid dangerous bear interactions and assist paid Ridgerunners in keeping the nearby section of the trail safe.
The task force is holding a training session Aug. 8 for people interested in volunteering to educate visitors and take part in weekend patrols of the area from the 311 parking lot to the Campbell Shelter.
Signs warning of bear activity were posted at the following locations surrounding McAfee Knob: the 311 parking lot kiosk; the on-trail kiosk north of 311; the fire road; the Johns Spring, Catawba, Campbell and Lamberts Meadow shelters; the Andy Layne Trailhead; and the Daleville Park and Ride kiosk.
In the warnings, the trail club recommends that hikers store their food 12 feet above the ground and 6 feet out from a tree limb or trunk.
Otherwise, the bears will be there.
"If people are gonna start leaving food out," Christopulos said, "they’re going to get bears used to being around shelters."