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DWR’s Latest Black Bear Management Plan Will Guide Management Decisions into the Future

By Carl Tugend/DWR

Wildlife biologists with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) have a blueprint for managing the Commonwealth’s black bear (Ursus americanus) populations in the DWR Bear Management Plan. It’s a plan that’s created with input from multiple sources and that has a goal of maintaining optimum bear populations that balance positive demands (e.g., hunting, viewing) with negative demands (e.g., agricultural damage, residential bear conflicts). A focus of the latest version of the plan is encouraging humans to coexist with bears.

Starting in 2020, DWR began its latest revision of the state’s Black Bear Management Plan. The current plan is the third iteration, the first having been written in 2001, followed by the second in 2011. These plans are used to guide our management of black bears through strategic visons over a 10-year period. The plan describes the history of the bear management program, its current status (supply and demand), and the future management directions. The plan establishes a framework through 2032 of what generally needs to be done and how it should be done. By clarifying DWR’s management goals and objectives relating to bears, this plan will help Board members, DWR administrators, DWR staff, and the public to effectively address bear issues. As the basis for guiding black bear management activities, decisions, and projects, the plan also informs the General Assembly and the public of what DWR intends to accomplish.

DWR incorporated the input from three different committees while developing and revising plan:

  • The Bear Plan Technical Committee was made up of department staff: bear biologists, district biologists, administration personnel, and law enforcement officers from around the state. The main function of this committee was to provide technical support to the plan, including developing strategies to meet the goals and objectives within the plan.
  • The Citizen Advisory Committee included members of the public who would represent a larger proportion of constituents based on their positions within different organizations. Some of the organizations represented on this committee included the Wildlife Center of Virginia, Virginia Bear Hunter Association, The Nature Conservancy, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Virginia Beekeepers Association, Virginia Farm Bureau, and Virginia Bow Hunters Association. The main role of this committee was to provide information pertaining to public values and provide feedback on the goals and objectives developed to meet those values. They also reviewed technical information, public comments, and any management issues.
  • The Interagency Advisory Committee, which involved sister agencies and local government officials such as the National Park Service, the Virginia Department of Transportation, US. Forest Service, USDA Wildlife Services, and the counties of Fairfax and Floyd. The role of this committee was to provide guidance on the values of their agencies and constituents, input into the plan’s goals and objectives, and some technical assistance associated with strategies.

The Plan’s Goals

Embodying the interests of all Virginians, the revised plan reflects the values of a diverse public about what should be accomplished with bear management in Virginia. Bear stakeholders focused on making value choices about bear management, while wildlife professionals focused on the technical aspects of bear management. Additional public input was obtained from surveys and broad public review of the draft plan.

The plan states six goals that address the areas of populations, habitat, recreation, human-bear conflicts, and bear health and welfare. Below is a summary of the goals established within the plan—to see the full extent of the goals, along with the objectives and strategies, please read the Black Bear Management Plan in its entirety.

Goal 1- Population Viability: Ensure the long-term viability of bear populations in each of the eight Viability Regions in Virginia.

Goal 2 – Population and Cultural Carrying Capacity (CCC): Manage bear populations at levels adaptable to a changing CCC (e.g., land use, property concerns, economics, recreational opportunities).

Goal 3 – Habitat Conservation and Management: Manage and conserve black bear habitat in Virginia consistent with long-term bear population objectives, with emphasis on areas of special significance (e.g., areas with source populations and habitat linkages) considering potential habitat changes, and potential human-bear interactions.

Goal 4 – Bear-Related Recreation: Provide and promote a diversity of bear-related recreational opportunities (e.g., hunting, non-hunting) for a diverse public that minimizes human-bear conflicts, encourages responsible and rewarding outdoor experiences, and promotes keeping bears wild.

Goal 5 – Human-Bear Conflicts: Foster coexistence with bears by preventing and reducing human-bear conflicts (e.g., agricultural, residential, recreational, vehicular, human health and safety).

Goal 6 – Bear Health and Welfare: Promote the health and welfare of wild black bears while attaining other bear plan goals.  Foster respect for wild bears both as individual animals and as members of a naturally functioning population.

Each of these goals have associated objectives under them which set milestones for DWR to achieve as they work toward meeting the goals themselves. Objectives are the technical expression of the public vision, expressed as goals. Some objectives used in this plan are intended to be quantifiable and/or have milestones for achievement; however, the entire set of objectives ultimately functions more as a “checklist” for achieving goals. Within each of the objectives, we have listed potential strategies or avenues to guide our on-the-ground management. These strategies are not set-in-stone, executable directives, but rather potential ideas we can use to guide us in our efforts to meet those objectives.

During the third revision, DWR’s black bear program decided to use a new method to develop bear population objectives called Structured Decision Making (SDM). SDM is designed to deliver insight to decision-makers about how well their objectives may be satisfied by potential alternative courses of action. It helps find acceptable solutions across groups and clarifies divergent values that may underpin smaller trade-offs.

As a result of using the SDM method, we developed a goal that is new to any management plan written in Virginia. This new goal focuses on the health and welfare of Virginia’s black bears. This received support from all three of the committees, especially considering that Virginia has sarcoptic mange in the bear population. By adding this goal, it now enables DWR to act with full support from the public to address anything involving health and welfare on both a population level and individual level. This goal also gives us health and welfare standards to adhere to when writing field protocols, response plans, and standards on the care of both orphaned cubs and captive bears.

Carl Tugend is the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources black bear project leader.

  • December 29, 2023