State wildlife officials: Bear sightings up in Hampton Roads

Posted at 1:41 PM, Jun 18, 2014
and last updated 2014-06-18 17:45:51-04

There has definitely been more bear sightings in Hampton Roads this year, according to state wildlife officials. But, why more bears are venturing into suburban areas is up for debate.

Pete Acker, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has a couple of theories.

While May and June marks the busiest time for bear sightings, Acker says it's unusual to see them in Virginia Beach. To put it into perspective, Acker explains that in the last five years there may have been one bear sighting in Virginia Beach. But, in just the past two weeks, three sightings have been reported.

The Great Dismal Swamp is just one area nearby, he says, that supports the flourishing bear population in Hampton Roads.

With May and June being bear mating season, Acker believes that may have something to do with the recent sightings. Momma bears kick out their baby boy cubs after a year and a half, forcing them to find a new territory for themselves. Some of those cubs, Acker says, often find themselves strolling into suburban areas by mistake.

But, another theory has to do with a shortage of the acorn crop this past Fall in areas where bears live. When bears came out of hibernation in the Spring, Acker says, it's possible they were hungrier and had to venture further from home to find more food.

A third theory comes from licensed wildlife rehabilitator Evelyn Flengas who runs Evelyn's Wildlife Refuge, a nonprofit organization in Virginia Beach. She believes a loss of habitat is to blame not only for more bear sightings but the sightings of other wildlife rarely seen in Hampton Roads. For instance, Flengas is currently caring for a coyote cub as well as a baby fox and several raccoons.

Acker says there's always the potential that habitat loss could be driving more wildlife into Suburban areas, but he doesn't believe it's the cause of more frequent bear sightings recently. Areas prime for development, he says, don't make good bear habitats in the first place.

But, whatever the cause behind this year's uptick in the number of bear sightings, Acker says if you spot one don't run from it.

"They're not aggressive, they're not dangerous. We only have Black bears in Virginia. We don't have Grizzly bears and Brown bears."

Instead, enjoy it.

"Take a picture and tell your friends about it because it's kind of neat.  It's something that people don't get to see very often and it's a wild animal that we're lucky to have."