By Alison Murtagh
Dennis Brinkley wonders what might have happened to him 15 years ago if he had not brought his dogs with him hunting. A lifelong bear hunter, Brinkley and his friends were training their dogs in Bath County when they spotted their usual target. The bear noticed the group as well, but this time the animal’s response was different from what Brinkley had ever experienced during his many years involved in the sport—the approximately 350-pound beast charged after them.
Brinkley and his friends fled to hide behind a tree, while his dogs in training distracted the bear. Due to the hunting regulations enforced during training season, the group did not have guns with them. They needed to rely on gut instinct and their dogs to keep them safe.
But the dogs may have also caused the weird behavior for a generally shy black bear. Recently the relationship between dogs and bears, especially in regards to hiking, has been controversial. According to Jaime Sajecki, the Black Bear Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, bears and dogs have a bad history, stemming from when wolves would go after bears and their cubs.
“Traditionally, bears have always been hunted by dogs, and so sometimes just the presence of a dog can sort of set a bear off or make it feel like it has to be on the defense,” Sajecki said.
Dogs brought hiking should be kept on a leash, or be able to respond immediately to the owner’s commands. Dogs that are not on a leash may lead a bear back to its owner.
“I think that what happens sometimes, especially if a dog is antagonizing some bear cubs, is that the mother bear sort of wants to neutralize the threat,” Sajecki said. “And a person is so much bigger than a dog. My best guess is they sort of go after the biggest things in the room to stop the antagonization of the cubs.”
According to Brinkley, the director of the Virginia Bear Hunting Association for the 29-county region that includes Rockbridge County, the incident during training season was the only time a bear has ever been aggressive towards him.
Other hunters and hikers have not been so lucky. Over the past three years alone, at least two bear attacks in Douthat State Park have made headlines. Both victims received medical attention after the attacks.
The attacks did not stop hunters, and the three-day early hunting season held in many counties ended on Oct. 4. Rockbridge hunters are now preparing for the full firearms season to begin in late November. Archery bear season is already underway. In September, the Associated Press said the state is expecting a record number of bear kills this year.
Sajecki said this increase might be due to the longer bear hunting seasons, and the legalization of hunting on both Sundays and private property.
“It’s because we’ve increased the opportunity for people to harvest bears in order to meet our bear management goals,” Sajecki said.
Richard Sprinkle, the President of the Virginia Bear Hunters Association, said today there are very few places in Virginia where bears are not seen. However, growing up in Botetourt County, this was not always the case.
“It was a rare occurrence to just see a bear when I was young,” Sprinkle said. “Now, where I live it’s not uncommon to see a bear at my house.”
Although lifelong hunters are seeing more bears than before, bear populations in western Virginia, including in Rockbridge County, have actually stabilized since 2009 due to regulated hunting.
With approximately 17,000 black bears throughout Virginia, it is likely people will see one this year. However, these interactions don’t have to be scary.
Sajecki said black bears are not naturally aggressive creatures.
“Considering that they are these large, powerful animals, that are clearly capable of conflicting all sorts of damage, they are naturally wary of people,” Sajecki said. “They don’t want to be around people for the most part. And when people see them, especially in urban settings or residential settings, it’s because there’s food for them there.”
According to Sajecki, there have been no fatalities recorded in Virginia from bear attacks since the state began keeping records of them. The few injuries people reported in recent years have typically been because the bear was acting in defense.
“As long as you use a little bit of common sense, even if you just know a tiny bit about bears and their behavior, and what they’re trying to say, you can avoid negative interactions so easily,” Sajecki said.
If a bear is seen, people are encouraged to back away slowly instead of running. According to Sajecki, bears are more tolerant of people than people are of them. To avoid any unwanted interactions, hikers should make noise, and can also carry a special pepper spray made for the animal.
“In all situations where people come across bears, your behavior and what you do will basically decide how the situation goes,” Sajecki said.
Although some people enjoy hunting bears, others enjoy simply knowing the animals are still around after a population decrease many years back.
“After bears were pretty much wiped out of this state, people should feel kind of lucky at this point that we live in a place that has the habitat to sustain the wildlife that it does, and that we have bears,” Sajecki said. “So many people appreciate them just for what they are, which is really neat because they’re such amazing animals.”