- 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.

As residential development has moved up the slopes of the mountains that ring the Roanoke Valley, people have moved into the bears’ neighborhood. Bears, too, move into suburbia when they find easy meals: beehives, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, trash cans and bird feeders.

“They’d much rather find a bird feeder than go around picking up acorns,” Lovelace said.

It’s all about calories expended. Some might call black bears lazy. Sajecki calls them opportunistic omnivores. They aren’t likely to chase down prey, but they’ll feast upon dead animals and roadkill, the more rancid the better.

They smell through their mouths and noses and their sense of smell is seven times keener than a bloodhound’s, she said.

People mistakenly think a bear is aggressive when they see one rise up on its hind legs.

“They see with their nose and do it better standing up,” she said.

Though they can destroy crops and property, they aren’t typically dangerous. There’s never been an unprovoked attack or fatality by a black bear in Virginia, she said. Despite the hundreds of thousands of bears in North America, there have been just 60 cases of bears killing people in the past 100 years.

The reverse is not true.

DGIF primarily uses hunting to manage the bear population and counts on hunters to help keep the balance between bears and people. Farmers also can obtain kill permits if bears are damaging their crops. And drivers hit them, too.

The failure of the acorn crop last year sent bears roaming far beyond their usual territories searching for food.

“Unfortunately, a record number of bears were killed on kill permits, our first year where the kill permit bear kill exceeded 300 animals. Two farms alone killed almost 60 bears in Region 4. . The bears were where the food was and most of the food out there was crops,” she said.

“While our roadkill reports are a vast underestimate of how many bears are killed on roads, as an index, we had twice as many bears killed on roads than the highest year on record, many of them sows traveling with cubs looking for food.”

Even after food is once again abundant in the forests, the bears will continue to visit neighborhoods if they smell easy meals. Lovelace said the best approach is for neighbors to join together to lock up bird feeders, trash cans, pet food and any other morsels. Stringing an electric fence around beehives, gardens and fruit trees also keeps bears away.

Sajecki is concerned that, because the bears look scraggly, especially the yearlings, people will feed them.

Not only is it illegal to feed bears in Virginia, it’s the worst thing for them, she said.

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.

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