- Associated Press - Saturday, April 19, 2014

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) - To us, a bird feeder swinging from a tree looks as tasty as a handful of sawdust. But to a scrawny bear emerging from his winter den, that bird feeder might as well be an Easter basket brimming with malted eggs and peanut butter cups.

To be smarter than the average bear, Roanoke Valley suburbanites need to know that filling a bird feeder after April 1 is the same as inviting a hungry wandering bear to grab a seat at the picnic table.

Virginia’s 17,000 bears are especially hungry this spring. They’re emerging from their dens scrawnier than usual, having had too few acorns to feast upon last fall. And they are wandering into suburbia, drawn by the delicious scents of bird feeders and trash cans.

“I am asking the public to keep that in mind when a bear is doing something that inconveniences them, like getting into trash, they aren’t trying to be pesky. They are just hungry, and we happen to leave out easy food for them,” said Jaime Sajecki, the black bear project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

As insects also begin to emerge and multiply and brown fields and leafless forests to green, natural food will become more abundant, and bears won’t need to visit neighborhoods.

Until then, suburban residents are being urged to take down their bird feeders and lock up their trash. It’s a good idea to keep all food locked away in Roanoke County.

“The bears like us. We’re a very friendly county, and we feed them well,” said Melinda Rector, the county’s business coordinator for General Services and anointed “bear whisperer.” Chances are if you’ve called the county to complain about bears in your garbage, you’ve probably spoken to Rector and heeded her advice.

Earlier this month, Rector, Sajecki and others with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries held a well-attended program on bears at Northside High School’s library.

Many in the audience were drawn to the program because bears have been drawn to their yards.

Last year, DGIF awarded the county a $10,000 grant for a pilot program to purchase bear-proof trash containers. They’re expensive, about $200. Rector said the county bought 52 and has seven left. Those who want them pay $95.50, and the money goes back into the fund so that more can be purchased.

The cans are heavier than the county’s regular containers and require a different truck to come and collect the trash. Rector said they’ve now hit on a cheaper solution. For $30, the county will retrofit a standard can with latches that humans can unlock but which befuddle bears.

Those who want to tackle this as a do-it-yourself project can watch DGIF biologist Dan Lovelace’s video, available on both the county’s and DGIF’s websites.

To see how well it works, look for another video on the websites that shows a bear doggedly trying to break into a latched container.

Rector said both the heavier and latch containers work. She’s hasn’t heard of one complaint from those who used to have a “bear problem.”

Sajecki said she’d like to see the program replicated in other communities where conflicts arise between bears and people.

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