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Virginia Black Bear Management Plan (2023–2032)

Executive Summary

Black bears (Ursus americanus) capture human admiration and interest like few other wildlife species. As a reflection of strength, images of bears are often used as icons for countries and athletic teams. Because of their intelligence and ingenuity, bears are perceived to have human-like emotional qualities. Expanding black bear populations have proven the adaptability and resilience of the species, but black bears are still recognized as indicators of ecological health and symbols of the American wilderness. Many citizens simply value bears because they exist in their native ecosystems. Many residents take pleasure in watching, hunting, or photographing this fascinating mammal; however, bears may also inflict damage to personal property and crops, and may sometimes be perceived as a safety risk.

Bears were plentiful and widespread when Jamestown was settled in 1607. By 1900, habitat changes and over-harvest of bears for food and hides had nearly extirpated the species but for isolated small populations in remote areas. Since the early 1900s, harvest management, reforestation, public land purchases, oak forest maturation, bear restoration efforts, and natural range expansions have all contributed to bear population growth in Virginia. With the resulting increase in bear populations, bear management objectives have changed from restoring to stabilizing populations over much of the Commonwealth. Although many people have welcomed this growing population, the abundance of bears can also create concerns for other citizens. Active management is necessary to maintain bear populations and habitat for the benefit of present and future generations.

The first two editions of the Virginia Black Bear Management Plan (hereafter Plan), completed in 2001 and 2012, have provided the blueprint for black bear management to meet the then Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ (DGIF) former mission of managing “wildlife…to maintain optimum populations…to serve the needs of the Commonwealth”. Although the Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) mission statement has changed (see Introduction section), maintaining optimum bear populations that balance positive demands (e.g., hunting, viewing) with negative demands (e.g., agricultural damage, residential bear conflicts) is still a primary goal of this revised plan. The previous and new editions of the Plan have all identified areas where bear populations should be managed to increase, decrease, or remain the same. A focus of this new plan is encouraging humans to coexist with bears.

Although DWR has traditionally incorporated public input into bear management decisions, it was not until development of the first Plan that a diverse cross section of stakeholders formally participated in a process to establish direction for bear management. To revise the Plan in 2012 and then again in 2023, similar stakeholder involvement processes were used to incorporate public values (e.g., economic, sociological, and political) and biological considerations.

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. Three committees contributed to the plan: the Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC), the Interagency Advisory Committee (IAC), and the Bear Plan Technical Committee (BPTC). The CAC, representing a cross section of bear-related interests (e.g., hunters, agricultural producers, homeowners, conservation organizations, and animal welfare interests), was responsible for identifying the goals and prioritizing the outcomes for bear management. The BPTC, composed of DWR staff with technical expertise in bear management, designed objectives and strategies based on values identified by the CAC. The IAC, composed of professionals from natural resource agencies and local governments, provided input and review on both values and technical components throughout the process. Like the processes in 2001 and 2012, additional public input was obtained from surveys and broad public review of the draft Plan.

The Plan contains two main sections: the technical portion and the Mission, Goals, Objectives and Strategies portion. The technical portion describes the life history and biology of bears, status (supply and demand), and historical and current management programs and issues in Virginia. The Plan includes a mission statement and six goals that address the areas of populations, habitat, recreation, human-bear conflicts, and bear health and welfare:

Mission for Bear Management

Sustainably manage black bears as a wild, free-roaming public trust resource in a manner that serves the needs and interests of the citizens of the Commonwealth.

Manage black bear populations, bear habitat, bear-related recreation, human-bear conflicts, and bear health and welfare using sound, applied science-based approaches that:

  • are flexible;
  • are proactive;
  • are ecologically responsible;
  • are ethical;
  • have impacts at relevant scales (local, regional);
  • are applied consistently;
  • are accountable and transparent;
  • are collaborative with other agencies, partners, and the public;
  • are holistic, considering consequences on other species, neighbors, and stakeholders; and,
  • foster public awareness, understanding, and engagement through accurate and objective bear-related information and education.

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 current and projected bear populations at levels adaptable to a changing CCC (e.g. land use, property concerns, economics, recreational opportunities).

  • The goal of maintaining or achieving long-term population viability (per Goal 1) is of higher priority, even when CCC is exceeded.
  • Both public attitudes and bear population size should be managed to meet current and projected bear CCC objectives.
  • Maintain black bear populations while recognizing ecological considerations and balancing the needs of other species.
  • Regulated hunting is the preferred method of direct population management, where appropriate and feasible

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. Conservation may consist of habitat management or protection that benefits multiple species.

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 minimize human-bear conflicts, encourage responsible and rewarding outdoor experiences, and promote keeping bears wild. Recreational opportunities should not support activities that prevent attainment of black bear population objectives. Recreational methods should be consistent with and respect the rights of landowners and others. Harvested bears should be utilized.

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) while:

  • Attaining bear population and recreation objectives;
  • Minimizing loss of property and income;
  • Fostering practices that keep bears wild;
  • Promoting shared responsibility (personal, community, agency) for human-bear conflicts;
  • Prioritizing use of nonlethal methods to resolve conflicts;
  • Using hunting as the preferred method when lethal alternatives are required to manage conflicts;
  • Increasing tolerance and appreciation of bears;
  • Encouraging utilization of bears that are killed, where appropriate and feasible.

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. Specific objectives were developed to help guide the attainment of each goal and can be found in the body of the report following each goal statement. Potential strategies then follow each objective that clarify ways in which each objective should be achieved.

The revised Plan will guide bear management across the Commonwealth through 2032. The Plan identifies generally what, when, and how bear projects are implemented and will provide guidance to the DWR Board of Directors, DWR administrators and staff, and the public on bear program priorities, management activities, hunting regulations, and annual budgeting for the next 10 years. It is important to emphasize that (1) the Plan is strategic rather than operational, and (2) bear management is the shared responsibility of DWR, other agencies, partners, and the public.

Plan Documents