Ah summer.  I love summer.  Sure, it can be hot but I love flip-flops and shorts; open windows and long days; green grass and pretty flowers; and VACATION.  Ah summer.

Every other year we take a dog vacation (much to my spouse’s dismay).  My vacations revolve around hiking and bakeries so bringing the dog along really doesn’t cramp our style.  The only constraint is that it must be within a day’s drive for all of us to keep our sanity.  This year I chose Shenandoah National Park just a 3-hour drive.  Who knew it was so close!

The weather was far from perfect.  Hot, humid, and wet.  It rained so hard one night that the ford and one-lane bridge to our rental house was under water…for 3 days.  But this was vacation.  I had a waterproof map, a hiking book, and a finite amount of time.  Rain or no rain, we hit the trail.

Our first soggy, foggy hike was to Hazel Falls.  One thing about wet weather, it makes for nice water falls.  As we were climbing back up to Skyline Drive, my eye caught something crossing the trail.  The trail was quiet, the mist was heavy, and the woods were gray.  It paused behind a downed log on the side of the trail and looked at me.  The dog growled and off it went.  But before it did, I saw the cute round ears, little eyes, and brown nose of a black bear.  I was ecstatic!  I turned to my partner, who always brings up the rear, giddy with excitement.  We have hiked in countless places with bear populations but never have encountered one on the trail.  It was a great start and I thought it would be the highlight of the trip.

Over the next 5 days, we saw another 6 bears!  3 while hiking and 3 while driving to or from a trail.  One actually ran in front of the truck on the last day.  It was crazy!  On our hike to Lewis Falls, I paused to say something.  But when I turned I spotted a bear yards off the trail, and simply said “Bear.”  If I hadn’t stopped at that moment, I probably would have missed it.  Deer maybe the ghost of the forest but bears can give them a run for their money.  They are completely silent.

There has been little bear research in the park since the 1980s.  But studies conducted in the 70s and 80s estimated the black bear population exceeded 300 animals in 306 square mile park.  Like all critters, bears are not evenly distributed throughout the park so in good habitat, there are roughly 1.5 bears/square mile!  YIKES!  For comparison, in northcentral PA (the best bear habitat in the state), bear density is estimated to be 1.3 bears/square mile.

Shenandoah being a national park is closed to hunting.  However, bear hunting does occur outside of the park.  The 8 counties surrounding the park account for almost half of Virginia’s entire bear harvest.  Yes, there is no shortage of bears in Shenandoah.  

In fact, increased bear sightings, nuisance bear incidents, and harvest surrounding the park at the turn of the last century support a growing bear population.  

With bears seemingly around every corner, did we see any deer?  Fawns are springtime snacks for bears.  We know they eat more fawns than other predators out there. 

Of course, we saw deer!  Beautiful, sleek, habituated deer along roadways and trails.  Bears and deer living together?  Mass hysteria!  So what does the deer population look like in the park?

-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section

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