A black bear roams the habitat at the W.Va. Wildlife Center. (Photo by Monica Zalaznik/My Buckhannon)
A black bear roams the habitat at the W.Va. Wildlife Center. (Photo by Monica Zalaznik/My Buckhannon)

Creature Feature: Black bears at the West Virginia Wildlife Center

BUCKHANNON – Spring is approaching, and the warmer weather means West Virginia’s state animal will emerge from hibernation soon.

Trevor Moore, wildlife biologist with the West Virginia Wildlife Center, said the zoological facility in French Creek currently houses three black bears — two arrived in 2015 and one in 2017.

“Two of them were brought in by biologists who worked with us already,” Moore said. “We don’t encourage people to interact with bears or other wild animals, but these were some of our biologists who understood the implications and knew the health of these bears. They could tell they weren’t being taken care of, or they were abandoned. The last one was confiscated from some individuals who had him illegally.”

Black bears are omnivores, so they eat both meat and plant material.

“Bears are very good at scavenging and finding things they need,” Moore said. “They have an excellent sense of smell, which helps them locate all sorts of food items, along with big paws and claws to get at things in the ground or break into people’s trash cans.”

Bears will go after fawns during fawning season, as well as eat insects, grubs and fish.

“They are not ‘chase-them-down’ predators, they’re more opportunistic,” Moore said. “They definitely eat roadkill or things coyotes have killed and haven’t cleaned off. They’ll eat berries and acorns — big nuts and seeds are always big sources of calories for bears, especially around here.”

Bears prepare for hibernation by eating an excessive amount of food in the fall to gain weight, so they don’t have to leave their den during the winter. During hibernation, they don’t eat or drink and rarely use the bathroom.

As they re-emerge in the spring, people are most likely to see bears when the animals are searching for something to eat.

“Especially in March and April, we start getting a lot of calls about black bears, so we always tell people to make sure they don’t have any food outside — and that includes pet food,” Moore said. “Make sure that any food you do have outside is locked up securely in a container that is not going to allow the smell to get out.”

Trash cans should also be secured, and bird feeders should be put away when bears are coming out of hibernation.

“Nuts and seeds are a great source of protein — bird feeders need to be brought in at night, so the bears aren’t going to smell it, go through it and destroy your bird feeder,” Moore said.

If you do come across a bear suddenly, Moore offered some tips to ensure a safe encounter.

“If you have a bear that’s on your property and it scares you — let’s say you’re out working and you come around the corner of your barn, and there’s a black bear and it’s acting defensive — you need to be big,” Moore said. “You need to be loud, and you don’t want to be hostile towards the bear unless the bear attacks you.”

If a bear is seen on a property, food is likely in the vicinity.

“Here in March, some bears are coming out of hibernation,” Moore said. “They’re mostly males and they’re looking for food, so they’ll be getting water and maybe some plant material to help break up stuff in their digestive tract, because they don’t go to the bathroom while they’re hibernating. If you happen to just see a bear, you should leave it alone and see if it leaves on its own. If not, call animal control.”

The West Virginia Wildlife Center offers free admission through the end of March.

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