SAMUEL: What do people think of black bears?

Black bears have made a comeback in many parts of the country, including West Virginia.  Various surveys have been done in several surrounding states to assess just how people feel about having black bears around.  

It seems  most people know little about black bears, and most have had no encounters with them.  In Maryland, 48% of citizens said they know a little about black bears, but only 2% said they know a great deal.  Turns out  those who think they know a great deal live in western Maryland, where there are lots of bears.  Since most citizens know little about bears, I guess it is no surprise  55% of residents believe black bears are rare in Maryland.  Truth is, there are lots of bears in Maryland, but most live in the western part of the state.  In that part of the state, 53% believe bears are common, 24% believe they are abundant and 18% believe they are rare.  Ninety-two percent of citizens have never encountered a black bear in the wild in Maryland, but 65% of western region respondents have. 

In Pennsylvania, 73% of the population feels they know a little or nothing about bears, while 27% say they know a great deal or have moderate knowledge of bears.

How do people feel about having black bears around?  As you might guess, people generally like knowing black bears are around, but when they are in a person’s yard, attitudes change.  In Maryland, 98% of those surveyed have not had problems with black bears in their neighborhood or around their homes in the past two years. However, 24% of western region respondents have.  The problems they had with bears were related to bird feeders (36%) or garbage (29%). 

Do people feel  bears are dangerous?  In Maryland, 52% do not think they are dangerous to humans, while 35% think they are dangerous.  The truth is,  in most situations, black bears are not a problem for humans, but if someone keeps garbage or dog food outside and bears get used to coming there for food, then that habituated bear can become dangerous for the owner.  The same is true for bird feeders.  If a bear gets habituated to the food they can get at a bird feeder, then that bear can be a problem.  Finally, if that habituated bear is a sow with cubs, then the danger element goes up in a hurry. 

There is a big dichotomy when residents give their opinion on whether they want more or fewer bears in their area.  Those who want to see an increase want it to increase a moderate amount, while those who want to see a decrease want it to decrease a lot.  Virginia and Pennsylvania residents felt this way and the difference is linked to living in suburban areas versus rural, agricultural areas.  Even so, Virginia agriculture producers agreed (71 %)  people and black bears can live in the same area without conflict. 

How do citizens feel about hunting as a method to control bear numbers?  Overall, there is support for hunting.  In Maryland, 65% support hunting as a way to control bears and 29% oppose it.  In Pennsylvania 70% support hunting bears and 23% oppose it.

Reasons for supporting hunting were because people felt  it was the best way to control bear problems and because bear control was needed.  The Pennsylvania study noted that black bears threatening human safety was not an important reason to control them.  Why did people oppose hunting bears to control numbers?  The top reason had nothing to do with bears, it was just that they were opposed to all hunting.  

Pennsylvania also looked at the various types of black bear hunting and found that hunting limited to just bows got only 33% support, hunting in the spring got 22% support, hunting bears with dogs got 13% support and hunting over bait got only 12% support.  

If I could summarize people’s feelings about bears, I’d say most are pleased to have bears around, but less happy when they are in their neighborhood or causing them bird feeder, garbage or agriculture-related damage.  Most approve of what state game agencies are doing to manage bear numbers and support their game agencies.  A few months ago I wrote about the outlier state (New Jersey), where the governor is trying to stop all bear hunting over the objection of the state wildlife agency.  He has already reduced bear hunting and this has led to a rise in human/bear conflicts.  Surprise, surprise.