All over the world, we hear the story of bears. The polar bear may die out due to climate change. The grizzly bear lives only in tiny pockets of its former range in the Lower 48. The spectacled bear is not long for this world, and the giant panda is an avatar of the movement to save endangered species.
American black bears are not among the endangered or threatened, though. They are doing well in such densely populated states as New Jersey.
They are also doing quite well in the wild and wonderful land of West Virginia. When I was a boy, my grandpa loathed bears. If anyone mentioned a bear popping up near his land, he would always go “There isn’t room enough for me and bear in these woods.”
I don’t know where this bear hatred came from, but his ancestors were small farmers who may have lost hogs or sheep to the odd roving bear.
I remember one year that something knocked over his 200-pound deer feeder. It obviously had to have been a black bear. At that time of year, a bear would have been in hyperphagic mode, and the taste of cracked corn in the deer feeder would have been a pleasant repast on a balmy October day.
He never caught the bear in question, but I knew that he really wanted to. He wanted to shoot it for daring to be in this civilized world.
The reason that bear never got killed is because its kind learned long ago to live with us.
And the best way to do that is to avoid our kind at all costs.
By the time I was born, there were only about 500 bears in the state of West Virginia, and now there are about 10,000. Those 10,000 descend from those 500 survivors, who taught their cubs how to thrive in a land where the guns are loaded.
If you see a bear in West Virginia, well over 9 times out 10, all you’ll see is a black form charging into the timber to get as far from you as possible.
The bear that thrives is the bear that knows that the best thing to do when encountering one of us is to run away.
I know that other black bear populations where they sometimes hunt people or, at the very least, tear up garbage.
But not here, they survive only because they are afraid. Fear makes them good neighbors.
And that is the only way a bear can thrive.