Bad news, bears: Home invasions lead to kill permit
Helen Hatzenbeler had the windows open and was standing on a ladder painting her living room in August when she looked down and saw two bear cubs looking at her. "What makes you scared is wondering, where's mama?" she says.
It wasn't the first time bears had visited her Redfields neighborhood– she'd found her bird feeder trashed in June. She snapped pictures of the cubs with her Blackberry and a few hours later, she was sitting in her family room when the mother bear walked onto her patio.
"I screamed," recounts Hatzenbeler. "When they're 10 feet away and glass is in between, you don't feel too safe. She's intimidating."
Hatzenbeler noticed one of the cubs was pulling the cover off her hot tub, and she opened her door to scare him away. "The mama took one, two, three steps toward me," says Hatzenbeler. "She puffed up like a cat does. Her head was huge and she was standing fully tall." Hatzenbeler quickly shut the door.
In Wintergreen, the bears were bolder. A bear that had learned how to operate a door latch entered John Claman's house one night in May. "We didn't hear a thing," he says. "The next morning, we found the freezer door open and food on the floor and in the driveway."
That was one of about 30 home and car break-ins by a mother and two cubs whom Claman calls "nuisance bears."
"They came back the next day in broad daylight," he says. "I shooed them off." About a week later, they broke into his new Audi and did about $10,000 worth of damage. "There was no food or food wrappers in the car," he notes.
The feeding frenzy of the foragers resulted in a permit to shoot them out of season from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "They started breaking into houses," says VDGIF spokeswoman Julia Dixon. "That's pretty brazen behavior."
Bears are "opportunistic eaters who never forget where they get a meal," she says. "They can do a lot of damage, plus it was a public safety issue if people were there."
The state game department didn't give Wintergreen carte blanche to fire on bears. "We wanted to make sure we had the nuisance bears," explains Dixon. "They could only be killed if they were in a home or car."
Nature writer Marlene Condon objects to killing bears to control their behavior, and she puts the blame squarely on the humans living in bear territory. "Were they cooking food and had the windows open?" she asks. "Typically you're not going to have bears unless you cook with the windows open." And don't leave food wrappers in the car, she adds.
"People have got to learn how to coexist with wildlife," says Condon, a White Hall resident and author of The Nature-Friendly Garden. "I've lived here for almost 23 years and I don't have these problems."
Condon has spotted a mother and two cubs in her yard, trying to get to her bird feeder that's deterred bears for 10 years. "The cubs were trying to get to the feeder, but the mother was scavenging for seed on the ground, which told me she'd been there before," she says.
Humans need to clean up their acts so that it isn't necessary to hunt bears out of season, believes Condon. "It's very sad," she says. "The human population is out of control. If bears are not in yards, where are they going to be?"
The game department worked closely with Wintergreen, where dumpsters are kept closed and homeowners are cautioned not to leave garbage cans or dog food outside, and to be aware that the scent of bird feeders and outdoor grills can draw the giant mammals looking for tasty snacks.
"We've asked property owners not to put out bird feeders between May and October," says Claman. According to the game department, bird feeders could be considered "baiting," which is illegal.
Considered big game in Virginia, hunters can "harvest one a year," says the VDGIF's Dixon. Regular bear firearms-hunting season begins November 24 and runs through January 3 in Albemarle and surrounding counties. Last year, 78 bears ran into accurate hunters in Albemarle, and 59 were killed in Nelson.
Wintergreen has another permit for out-of-season hunting, this one for deer. "We've been trying to minimize the herd size here the past five-six years," says Russell Otis, executive director of the property owners association. One thousand have been hunted and 15,000 pounds of deer meat donated to Hunters for the Hungry, he says.
"I think a sustainable density is 20 per square mile," says Otis. "Stoney Creek has 100 per square mile. In that area, there are more than when we started."
Condon agrees that there are too many deer. "That is what happens when we don't coexist with predators. We used to have cougars and wolves. Both of those controlled deer population."
Virginia is in the top 10 states where it's most likely deer and auto will collide. State Farm Insurance estimates that 54,000 drivers in the state hit deer the last half of 2007 and first half of 2008.
Besides the dangers of people in their cars hitting deer, the ravenous herds impact the habitat for other animals, says Condon. "You really do have to have hunters to control the population."
The experts' advice for November: Watch out for deer and don't feed the bears.