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Bear in mind, this is their home: Breaks Interstate Park asks visitors to be ‘Bear Aware’

Published: Apr. 19, 2021 at 8:51 PM EDT
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BREAKS, Va. (WYMT) -As spring weather brings out the adventurous, it also brings out the hungry.

With the number of visitors at the Breaks Interstate Park reported at 30 percent higher than in 2019, officials are taking time to remind visitors that they might encounter some of the park’s furry residents as they embark on a journey.

“It is important for people to remember that the Breaks does have a very healthy population of black bears,” said Park Superintendent Austin Bradley. “When they finally do leave the den in the spring, they wake up hungry. And, unfortunately, that coincides with our camping season.”

Bradley said the park’s bears usually stick around the campground areas once they are out of winter torpor, in hopes of getting food after their slumber. But, he said, they do not usually approach people, only unattended items that may contain food.

“Even if there’s no smell even if it’s a cooler filled with soft drinks and water, bears actually know what coolers are in our park and they associate them with food,” Bradley said.

He encourages people to follow safety guidelines: sealing trash and throwing it into the bear-resistant trash bins around the park, keeping aromas at a minimum at campsites, keeping grills clean to avoid food scents, and hiding coolers from plain sight.

If visitors encounter a bear during a trip to the park, Bradley said it is important to be calm and treat it like a neighbor, while keeping more than the recommended social distancing in place.

“Talk to the bear. You know, you can just call them ‘Hey, bear.’ Go ahead and address the bear in a normal voice. Make sure that it recognizes you as human,” Bradley said. “Over the course of 11 years, any time that a bear has identified me as human, they just kind of run away.”

He said the bears often scurry away when confronted, but you should never run from them or chase them. Make your presence known and slowly make your way to a different part of the park. He said following the safety guidelines is for the safety of the visitors and the bears.

Officials say if wild animals grow reliant on humans for food, it can create dangerous situations for everyone involved, which is why feeding wildlife at the park is illegal.

“Most of the time, the bears have the worst outcome in that interaction because they often have to be euthanized,” he said. “Or trapped and relocated. But, a lot of the times, just euthanized.”

Due to COVID-19 guidelines, many things at the park took a hiatus- including the construction of the bridge, ziplines, and the water park. But the park plans to focus on programming this year to provide experiences like guided tours, wildlife viewing, and COVID-19 safe games.

“Even though we won’t be back to our full-programing schedule, we have quite a bit to offer this season,” said Bradley.

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