black bears are omnivores, and can live in a wide variety of habitats
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Black Bear (Ursus americanus) Facts
Virginia has black bears which range in color from light brown to dark black. There are no grizzly or polar bears in Virginia.
Black bears gorge during the Fall on acorns and whatever else they can find, then stay in a den (usually a hollow tree) during the winter. They emerge occasionally on warm days, and then in the Spring they will start ranging through their territory for food and mating. Females mate every other year, and force their cubs to "move on" after the second winter.
mothers of black bears force their cubs to find their own territories after the second winter of care
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bear cub at Shenandoah National Park
Those young bears must find their own territory, and will appear in suburban areas. When the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is called because bears are eating at birdfeeders, dog food bowls, and garbage cans in back yards, or found wandering on the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail in Fairfax County, the state agency focuses on managing the people rather than the bears. If left alone, the bears will wander away and cause no harm. If people try to chase a bear away with sticks, shouting, and arm-waving, they may irritate the bear and get slapped.
When bears decide that a corn field offers a reliable food source, farmers can lose up to 20% of their crop. Special permits for animal damage control allow farmers to hunt bears prior to the official opening of the season, and in some cases even to kill bears at night. In 2013, the natural acorn crop was poor around Shenandoah County, and bears caused an unusual amount of damage in farm fields while looking for substitute food prior to the long winter denning. The bear population is also increasing, creating more bear-human conflicts.1
in 2003, black bears were not residents of Northern Virginia
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
Unprovoked attacks by bears are rare. When hikers in parks and forests encounter bears, usually the bear simply moves away. Occasionally, however, a person will walk between a mother bear and her cubs, or a hiker's dog might challenge a bear. One such incident in 2014 resulted in a hiker in the George Washington National Forest getting clawed and bit, requiring a trip to the hospital in Winchester.2
Moving "problem bears" is expensive, and requires identifying an isolated location for a problem bear's new home. The National Park Service transports an average of 5-10 bears annually that were too intrusive into campgrounds at Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee/North Carolina. The bears are released in Cherokee National Forest with ear tags, but nearly 75% were never seen afterwards. The National Park Service wildlife biologist said, at the start of a project to track the bears with Global Positioning System (GPS) collars:3
black bears climb trees to find shelter, or escape hunters with dogs
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, American Black Bear
The bear population declined in Virginia as farming replaced forested habitat with cropland and hayfields in the 1800's. Abandonment of marginal agricultural lands in the 1900's, especially in mountainous areas, led to reforestation and expanded habitat suitable for bears.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries adopted the "Black Bear Management Plan 2012-2021." It was so successful that the state agency began to seek population reductions starting in 2017, similar to how restoration of deer has led to a management focus to maintain the population rather than expand it in certain counties. Hunting seasons were expanded, to prevent an excessive population growth that would become troublesome for residents. Hunting regulations require that successful bear hunters remove and send a premolar tooth to agency biologists. The teeth are used to determine the age of bears killed by hunters, and to calculate changes in the black bear population each year.
The population has grown from 1,000 black bears at the start of the 1900's to 18,000-20,000 bears in 2021. What is now called the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources considers the bear populaton to be "robust." The 2020-21 harvest of 3,464 black bears was the second highest in the history of the state, exceeded only by the harvest one year earlier.4
hunting is the primary management tool used to keep the black bear population in balance with the available habitat
Source: Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, Statewide Black Bear Harvest (1928–2020)