Incredibly adaptable, black bears (Ursus americanus) occupy a wide range of habitats. They are generally solitary, and are most active at dusk and dawn, but can be seen any time of day. They require large areas of diverse habitat to thrive and can travel significant distances.
Black bears are the only bears native to Virginia. Shy and secretive, the sighting of a bear is a rare treat for most people.
Adult black bears grow up to 7’ from nose to tail, and 2-3’ high. They have rounded ears, a long snout, non-retractable claws, a short tail, and shaggy black hair.
Depending on the time of year, adult females (called ‘sows’) weigh 90-250 pounds. Males (boars) commonly weigh 130-300 pounds.
Female black bears usually breed every other year. Cubs are born in January/February, and are raised by their mother for about 1½ years. Adult bears do not have natural predators and may live up to 30 years, although deaths caused by hunting, poaching and car collisions are frequent.
Some bears use dens in the cold season, although some roam about all winter. In Virginia, most bears den in large, hollow trees, fallen trees, rock cavities, brush piles, open ground nests, and man-made structures like culvert pipes.
Black bears have a diverse diet including plant parts, fruit, insects, juvenile and small mammals, amphibians and carrion. Bears are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders, eating mostly plants in the spring, berries and insects in the summer, and nuts and berries in the fall. They may raid orchards, beehives and agricultural crops, as well as trash cans.
Most residential bear problems arise when bears find food near homes and come in close contact with people. Properly storing human garbage, and keeping outdoor grills, pet food and bird feeders out of bears’ reach will help keep bears away. Young bears are frequently left to roam on their own by their mothers and may be attracted by food near homes and backyards. Unfortunately, bears that associate humans with food and become a nuisance are not relocated. It is the policy of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) to kill nuisance bears. The VDGIF website has a pamphlet on “Living with Black Bears in Virginia.”
When hiking and using campsites, keep your distance from bears, and don’t attempt to feed any wildlife. Make sure to properly store and dispose of any food and garbage.