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Two park trails close after bear encounter

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A woman and dog were injured after a run-in with a bear at Grayson Highlands

By Shaina Stockton

WHITETOP — The trail systems at Grayson Highlands State Park were closed June 16 after an encounter between a black bear and an untethered dog resulted in non life-threatening injuries to the dog’s owner.

According to Jim Meisner, public relations specialist for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the incident occurred at 8 a.m. that day. He said a woman was walking along Cabin Creek Trail and the Horse Trail Connector to Massie Gap with her dog.

The dog, described as a lab or lab mix, was unleashed, which is a violation at any state park in Virginia.

“The dog found the bear, and a conflict ensued,” Meisner told the paper. “The owner went to retrieve the dog, and the bear struck both the dog and its owner.”

The woman, who Meisner did not identify, was a visitor from North Carolina. He was also unable to provide details about the injuries the woman and the dog sustained; but he confirmed that they were not life-threatening, neither received emergency care at the scene and both have since been treated and released after receiving medical care.

When asked about charges due to the dog not being properly leashed, Meisner said that a ticket was not issued. “Our opinion is that she had been through enough,” said Meisner.

The bear ran from the scene, and investigators are not concerned about it still being in the area, or being a danger to others.

“The woman had a walking stick, and she beat on the bear with the stick until it ran,” he said. “Bears travel a long range; and it had the prospect of being a long ways away after this took place.”

The encounter happened during the park’s annual Wayne Henderson Music Festival; but Meisner confirmed that it did not disrupt the event. The trails were closed as a precaution to visitors and for investigators at the scene; but the festival was allowed to continue.

“The only disruption it would have caused would have been if someone had left the festival to hike on a trail, to find them closed. But the vast majority of [the guests at the festival] probably had no idea what was happening,” said Meisner.

As of June 17, all trails were reopened to the public except for the two trails at the scene of the incident, Cabin Creek and Horse Trail. These two trails will reopen in one to two weeks, Meisner said, after the investigation is included.

While the encounter went better than it could have, Meisner shared that he hopes this story will serve as a cautionary tale; and that visitors to our state parks will take care to protect local wildlife and their habitats.

“Bears are in nature, and nature is what visitors come to our state parks to experience. We encourage our visitors to be ‘bear aware,’ and to follow the rules such as keeping dogs leashed when visiting,” Meisner said.

Take Care Around Bears

Jaime Sajecki of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) was also present at the incident, and she offered some sage advice for state park visitors to prepare for and properly react upon seeing a bear.

“In general, there are usually two circumstances where most people see bears. The first is usually in the spring, when they have come out from hibernation and are foraging.”

Due to natural food resources being limited, bears seek out easy calorie supplements to pack on weight after losing an averaged 30 percent of their body weight during hibernation, she explained.

“Typically, their food resources consist of plant materials and grass, as well as insects, which is where they get most of their protein. But when people see a bear around their home, it’s usually because of some type of food that has been thrown out,” said Sajecki. “To a bear, a half-eaten pizza crust is an easy source for calories. It’s the same for bird feeders, which can supply a bear with up to 12,000 calories.”

To avoid bear encounters around the home, Sajecki recommends keeping garbage in secure containers, so as not to provide a food source for a bear. As for bird feeders, she recommends removing a feeder after a bear sighting for at least a month, so the bear doesn’t return.

“Bears are incredibly smart, and they will check back a couple of times. But once they realize there is no food, they should move on,” said Sajecki.

The second circumstance behind bear sightings is usually when a person is out in nature (such as a state park trail) and they encounter a bear in its natural habitat.

Campers especially are advised to take care in keeping food or food smells away from a camp site. It’s recommended to keep food stores at least 100 feet away from the site where you are camping, to carefully wash away any food smells from utensils and to not sleep in clothing that might smell like food. Additionally, perfumed soaps and lotions that smell like a food source could also be an attractant.

In situations when a person encounters a bear while out in nature, Sajecki said the best response is to make plenty of noise and to wave your arms. This usually makes a bear uncomfortable enough to simply turn and run away. If you are in a group, she suggests staying together. And she noted that it’s important to never run from a bear.

“In some cases, if there’s a bear around that doesn’t seem to want to move on, we’ve actually recommended that people use paintball guns to scare them off,” Sajecki said. “Paintballs aimed at their back end — not at sensitive areas such as the face — won’t hurt the bear; but anyone who has ever been shot with a paintball knows that is a good motivation to move along.”

If you accidentally come too close to a bear, and it isn’t aware of your presence, it’s wise not to startle it, she noted. Instead, backing away slowly while still facing the bear is the best option.

“I’d also like to add here that when a bear is nervous, they sometimes can’t figure out what they are hearing or smelling, so they stand up on their hind legs. This is an inquisitive behavior,” Sajecki said. “Bears have a strong sense of smell, that is seven times better than that of a bloodhound. To a bear, images are usually made up of smells instead of pictures. So when they are confused, getting away from the smells on the ground is a good way for them to understand what is around them.”

Chomping their teeth and smacking the ground is also a nervous habit of bears, not an indicator of a pending violent outburst.

“Backing away from the bear when you see these signs is usually all that the bear wants,” Sajecki said.

And finally, she noted that pets should always remain leashed to avoid unnecessary confrontations with a bear, such as the recent incident at Grayson Highlands.

“Dogs and bears definitely have a long and ancient rivalry. It’s important to keep any dogs within your sight and controlled to avoid [unnecessary injuries],” said Sajecki.

She noted that bear sightings can be a positive experience that comes from being immersed in nature. Not all bear sightings should be reported to authorities, due to them being a natural part of the area — unless of course it is a life-threatening emergency.

If a person spots a bear that appears injured or sick, they can call the DGIF’s help line at (855) 571-9003, or their local police if it is after hours.

“What’s important is making sure that our encounters with bears don’t end up being negative. Bears are such amazing and brilliant animals, and we hope that other experiences in seeing them is just a part of being immersed in nature and everything that it has to offer,” said Sajecki.

For more information about bears, local laws about dealing with bears, and the DGIF, visit dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/regulations/bear/. Another informational website recommended by Sajecki regarding bears is bearlife.org. For information about Grayson Highlands State Park and status alerts about the trails, visit dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/grayson-highlands#general_information.