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Think You Found a Bear Den? Please Leave it Alone!

A bear in her den.

By DWR Bear Team

With the changing leaves, cooler temperatures, and shorter daylight hours, it’s safe to say that summer and fall have faded behind us and winter is fast approaching. For many wildlife species fall is a busy time of year as they “fatten” up before winter. This means foraging for food becomes their primary daily activity. But after the rush of fall foraging comes the annual cycle of reduced activity for many species.

For black bears, winter is a time when many will enter a den, while others will greatly reduce their movements but may remain active throughout the season. Movements and denning behavior vary across regions of the state depending on weather and available food resources.

Black bears in Virginia will den in a variety of places including: brush piles, pine straw, trees (cavities within tree), rock outcroppings, ground nests, storm damage/debris piles, and occasionally under porches or unsecured crawl spaces. Not all black bears den for the full winter season. Often, black bears that enter a winter den are females who will birth their cubs in the den or females with yearlings still in tow. Male black bears may den, but generally do not stay in a den for the entire winter due to the lack of extreme cold weather and snow across much of Virginia.

A typical den opening.

While many of us also hunker down for the winter, there are still ample opportunities that take us afield in bear country. Whether enjoying a hike, cutting firewood, clearing brush, hunting, or doing other activities, you may inadvertently stumble upon a black bear den. A female black bear, particularly one who has had cubs in the den, will likely remain on the den unless they feel pressured to leave. Here are a few tips to avoid disturbing a bear den and what to do should a female leave her den.

Tips to avoid a den

  • Avoid hiking in dense brushy thickets or young cutover timber stands. If you must work in these areas be mindful of brush piles, gullies with debris piles, or storm damage areas with thickets of limbs/root balls.
  • If your furry companion accompanies you, always maintain your dog on a leash.
  • When burning a brush or debris pile on your property, look around the entire pile for signs of digging (fresh dirt, holes) or entry routes into the pile.
  • If you notice large excavated holes or fresh trails into debris or brush piles listen closely for the sound of cubs from a distance of at least 30ft away. Here is a recording of cub sounds within a den: Cub Noises
  • To prevent a bear from denning under an occupied dwelling ensure that crawl spaces, mobile home underpinnings, and porches are closed and secured prior to December 1 each year.

Tips when you find a den

  • If you find a den on your property or while recreating do not disturb it or approach the area. Leave the area and if on public property alert a park manager of the location.
  • If you inadvertently flush a female bear off a den, DO NOT approach the den. Take a GPS point of the location (or mark a nearby area with flagging) and leave the area immediately. If you have a dog with you, leash it and keep it maintained on a leash as you leave the area. Contact the Wildlife Helpline (1-855-571-9003) to report the den location.
  • Most often when left alone the female will return to the den, although they may not return until night. Do not go back to the den area as additional disturbance may cause the bear to leave again and not return.
  • December 3, 2020