The Return of the Black Bear: Why You’ve Probably Seen More than Your Grandpa

Photograph shows a black bear foraging in garbage containers, c 1905
Photograph shows a black bear foraging in garbage containers, c 1905

Like so many other young boys from my generation, my childhood was spent largely running like a wild man through the mountains and wildernesses of Appalachia. As a child, more often than not, I pretended myself to be an Indian or the likes of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.  The endless mountains of my memory were my hideaway, dreamland and life.

In the spring months, I was constantly in search of the elusive long beard turkey.

During the summer time, my days were spent alongside friends wading in swimming holes (except of course during the “Dog Days of Summer” when we were forbidden to step foot in creek water).

Septembers saw me squirrel hunting along the colorful ridges and oak groves, while October and November was spent praying for the opportunity to prey upon a whitetail buck.

My childhood was incredible and I owe a debt of gratitude to the mountains of Appalachia for allowing me to see more in a single summer than most folks get to see in a lifetime.

Interestingly, despite the thousands of collective hours I spent taking in the sights and sounds the mountains of West Virginia and Southwest Virginia had to offer, from first grade to adulthood, I only came in contact with or saw a black bear one time.  Only once in roughly two decades.

Regrettably, these days I am not nearly in the dark forests of Appalachia as much as I once was as a teenager, but surprisingly, I have seen a countless number of black bear over the past ten years — more so than to accurately place a number on it.

No fewer than four times while driving I was blessed to spot one, three times while hunting or hiking and once just by looking out the window.

Perhaps I’ve grown more observant in my older age, but I doubt this is the case.

According to national wildlife officials, this may be due to two separate facts: 1.) America’s Black Bear population suffered immensely around the turn of the previous century, and 2.) America’s Black Bear population has come roaring back in recent years.

National Park Service scientists believe there were once as many as two million black bears in North America prior to European colonization; however, the population declined to a low of 200,000 as a result of habitat destruction and hunting. By the early 1900s, bear populations were nearly eliminated from lands throughout much of Appalachia.

On the eastern side of the Blue Ridge, bear sightings ceased altogether after the last was reported in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1910; while their numbers in the interior of Appalachia greatly decreased, they were not entirely decimated.

Hunter with bear which he killed [between ca. 1900 and 1927]
Hunter with bear which he killed, between ca. 1900 and 1927

It was not uncommon for many mountain men of the mid-1900s to go years or even decades without ever coming in contact with a black bear.

In the 1930s, national parks and forests were created and federal officials sought to protect black bears and restore their population numbers.

Between 1937 and 1944, only two bears were reported within Shenandoah National Park and only ten bear were estimated to be living in the park.

“Through the protection offered by the park, the bear population gradually increased through the 1950s to an estimated 75 individuals park wide. Since the 1960s, much of Shenandoah’s hardwood forest has reached mast producing age. Intensive agricultural practices on lands adjacent to the Park have increased the availability of high starch foods preferred by bears including apples, peaches, grapes, corn, and honey. The mosaic of agricultural lands, woodlots and stream corridors surrounding Shenandoah created nearly ideal conditions for the bear population to expand and disperse.”

These “ideal conditions” for black bear populations has not been limited to Virginia.  From Canada to Georgia, including West Virginia, Tennessee and Carolina, bear populations have risen significantly over the past several decades.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Commission say that Black Bear numbers in their state have increased substantially, from an estimated 4,000 in the 1970s to around 18,000 today. A dramatic growth has provided more opportunities for people to see bears, which is an experience many treasure, and bear hunting has greatly improved.

As a matter of fact, according to National Geographic, “Scientists believe there are now more black bears in North America than there were when the settlers arrived in the 1600s.”

For all the talk of how “Old Appalachia” has been lost: its towering trees, American chestnuts, elk, Carolina parakeet, and mountain lions, it’s encouraging to hear that visitors to the forest are at least treated to a higher probability of seeing one ancient titan of the mountains: The American Black Bear.

With the increase in black bear population, so too comes the increased odds of visitors to the region’s forests spotting one.  Should you come upon one, the National Park Service offers some pointers on how to avoid the sighting being escalated:

  • Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
  • Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by woofing, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won’t be threatening to the bear. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
  • Pick up small children immediately.
  • Hike and travel in groups. Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, groups are also intimidating to bears.
  • Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground).
  • Do NOT allow the bear access to your food. Getting your food will only encourage the bear and make the problem worse for others.
  • Do NOT drop your pack as it can provide protection for your back and prevent a bear from accessing your food.
  • If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears. Do NOT run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals. Do NOT climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees.
  • Leave the area or take a detour. If this is impossible, wait until the bear moves away. Always leave the bear an escape route.
  • Be especially cautious if you see a female with cubs; never place yourself between a mother and her cub, and never attempt to approach them. The chances of an attack escalate greatly if she perceives you as a danger to her cubs.

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