NATURE NOTES – NUMBER 24 July 14, 2021
Welcome. As always, I try to offer something of interest in these notes, but this time there are some safety issues that scouts need to be aware of whenever hiking or camping in most of our council area.
Our Current topic: Bear with us
Yup, the bears are with us all right. Throughout history, bears have held a special place among humans. They have been feared, eaten, worn, worshiped, misunderstood and written about. Today we still are in awe of our native black bear. Regardless of how many you have seen, there’s a certain thrill when you see the next one. To a young Scout, that first sighting is a lasting memory. So let's look at some facts and background about this big omnivore.
Being an omnivore means it eats both meat (small mammals, fish, insects, reptiles) as well as plants (roots, berries, nuts, bark). When you are big and need a lot of calories, you need to eat whatever is available whenever you can. Bears have very keen sense of smell, are very intelligent, curious, and have an excellent memory. This can result on bears relying on human-generated food sources such as bird feeders, candy bars in backpacks and trash cans. As the population of bears increase and more humans move into bear-county, it is normal to expect more human-wildlife interaction. Therefore Scouts need to be taught a few things about bears that might be useful as well as interesting.
Probably #1 on the list is to avoid close encounters with any bear. They are, like most wild animals...well...wild. Make sure Scouts know to never get near bear cubs. Mama bear can be very aggressive in protecting her young. These cubs are born (about the size of a chipmunk) while mom is hibernating in a hollow tree or den under a wind-thrown tree. When these cubs emerge from the den in late winter, Mama will often leave them unattended for short periods while she forages for food. Don't assume a lone cub or two are abandoned, or you might meet an unhappy mom on her way back to her cubs. Also be aware that hibernation does not mean total sleep for months in our area. Depending on a lot of factors, such as weather and den location, bears may stir from time to time over the winter and wander out for food. So be Bear Aware year around.
When on the trail, it is important not to surprise a bear, so making some noise while hiking (usually not a problem with scouts) is a good idea. Also taking Fido along can create some potential problems. The bear might perceive a dog as a threat and respond appropriately, especially if the dog is not on a leash.
Scouts also need to understand the importance of protecting food when hiking or camping in bear country. There are all kinds of guidance from Leave No Trace, the scout handbook and other sources on how to store food and dispose of trash in a campsite. Read, understand, and apply this guidance.
In spite of our long-standing existence with bears, there are still lots of things we don’t totally understand. For example, how, during hibernation, body temperature, heart and respiration rate, can drop so dramatically without any long term effect on the animal? The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR) has ongoing research about black bears with radio transmitting collars to learn more about their behavior and movement. This puts wildlife managers a better position to protect them and manage their population. They have learned, for example, that "mountain" bears in the western part of the state behave and move about differently than the "Piedmont" bears on lower elevations.
So how many bears are there? The VDWR estimates that there are 17,000 bears in the state, with most counties reporting sightings. In North American, some estimates run upward to 900,000. These animals can live up to 30 years, although many young bears do not survive more than 5 years, due to natural disasters, extreme weather, vehicle collisions, and, at times being killed by a larger dominate male bear wanting to protect his territory from competition. Weight can vary greatly between individuals as well as between the same bear depending on the time of year. A male bear may weigh up to 400 pounds, while a female coming out of hibernation in late winter may be down to as little as 100 pounds. Their range can be up to 15 miles a day, depending on the availability of food.
So as a leader, make your scouts aware of the potential risks of bears. Don’t alarm them, just make them Bear Aware. Most encounters will be harmless and generate a lot of stories when the Scout gets home. Also, learning about bears is a good start on Mammal Study Merit Badge. Requirement 4c requires the scout to write a paper on a game animal. Much of the material for that paper is presented above. Encourage Scouts to follow-up on bears or other animals. We certainly haven't learned all there is to know about bears or most of nature yet. Keep looking, keep learning, and keep your Scouts interested in exploring nature.