As an anthropology/sociology major, I spend a lot of time researching and analyzing the relationships between people. My personal interest in the people of West Virginia has led me to spend a lot of time worrying about the plight of the coal miner, regional poverty and health effects of environmental degradation. I have made it my goal to give a voice to the people whose families have inhabited this region for generations. Recently I have realized that I am so human-centric (consumed by my own species), that I often forget to pay mind to the creatures who really rule these mountains.
I have decided to dedicate this week's blog to a very special animal, the black bear. Black bears have been steadily increasing in number, are the state animal of West Virginia and the true kings of the forest. During the 1960s, there were only a couple hundred black bears roaming around the state. They were confined mostly to high-elevation eastern counties, and sightings were few and far between. Over the past 50 years, bear populations have increased at an almost ridiculous rate.
According to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR), the state is now home to somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 of these majestic creatures. We can thank their incredibly swift comeback mostly to changes in hunting laws, but also to the animal's natural resilience. New state hunting regulations have provided important controls concerning bear hunting, which is a rather traditional Appalachian practice. Around ten years ago, the gun hunting season for black bears was changed from early November to late December. This has helped save many female bears, as they tend to go to den earlier than the males. The WVDNR's "trap and transfer program" has helped build populations where there once were none.
Though black bear population increase is an exciting phenomenon for wildlife enthusiasts, and hunters who prize them as trophy game, their increased population has sparked some bear vs. human conflict. As their numbers grow, and as development encroaches further into forested areas, bears are beginning to make more and more appearances out of the woods. In 2002, the state of West Virginia shelled out $112,843 in black bear damage claims. Most of these incidents are non-violent, and fall under the category of nuisance complaints. These generally arise when someone has their personal property (garbage containers, bird feeders, agricultural products, etc.) damaged by a black bear. Just last year, my roommate Caity had a black bear visit her parents' house, an hour outside of Morgantown, every day for a week. It even came up on her porch, sniffing around for food.
These incidents may certainly be alarming, but it is mainly our fault as humans that they occur. Black bears are naturally scared of humans -- they are simply attracted to our food. In recent years, many have become habituated to handouts, and are more likely to leave the woods and roam residential areas sorting through trash for a good meal. Unintentional feeding of black bears is currently a major concern of the WVDNR, as it causes bears to lose their fear of humans.
Black bears can now be found in all 55 of West Virginia's counties, and although they are certainly powerful creatures, they do not need to be seen as ferocious opponents. They don't roam the woods looking for trouble or dreaming of human flesh. Actually, as much as 75 percent of a bear's diet is comprised of non-meat sources. Bears can sometimes be mischievous and cause problems for people, but negative interaction can almost always be avoided. We need to respect our fellow mountain dwellers. Their increasing populations should be cherished and not feared. Just remember -- don't feed the bears!