How To Be Bear Smart On Naked Mountain

Chobani was not done with his (or her) visits to my house on Naked Mountain.  A few weeks later, early on a Sunday morning, a strange sound woke me up.  I opened my eyes to see a big black head looking in my bedroom window and two black paws pushing on the screens.  I jumped out of bed and ran toward the bear yelling at the top of my lungs.  Chobani scrambled back down off the Gravely mower that he had used to climb up to get up to the level of the window.  But then he just hung around in the yard.  My stepdaughter, who was visiting at the time, heard my yelling, saw the bear in the yard and raced out onto the screen porch yelling and waving her arms. That finally scared him (or her) and he ran into the woods.

Chobani’s claw imprint on porch screen

This incident frightened me enough to contact a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The biologist told me the bear’s behavior was not normal since I had removed all enticements in and around my house months ago, including all bird feeders and bird seed containers. The bear had destroyed my bird feeders and a blue bird nesting box, in addition to invading my screen porch.  He encouraged me to warn my neighbors not to “feed” bears by leaving bird seed and pet food around.  He also encouraged me to get a small gauge shotgun which would stun the bear, but not seriously harm or kill it.

I had no intention of doing that.  I have never owned or operated a gun and never wanted to do so.  Naked Mountain is a rocky place and I am very sure I would simply injure myself with ricocheted gunshot. Not to mention that the kickback would probably knock me over.  I would also want any gun safely under lock and key to prevent accidents through mishandling by visiting friends or family.  Guns are dangerous, especially in the hands of amateurs.

Instead, I did this — got a slingshot and practiced, located my can of bear spray given to me by an Alaska-dwelling relative, and readied a very loud air horn for use.  But Chobani never showed up again that season.

Ten months later in early June, I went out for a walk down my long road and left every one of the bear-protection items at the house.  This, of course, was the day I met Chobani walking up the road!  He (or she) was bigger than the last time we met, probably by a good thirty pounds.  I stopped in my tracks.  I was a quarter mile away from the house and safety.  Chobani was about 150 feet down the road. I started yelling, loud, low, and angry!  Chobani stopped, looked and looked and looked.  I kept yelling. Chobani kept looking.  Finally, I started backing up… uphill, still yelling.  Then I flapped my arms up and down. That seemed to do it.  Chobani probably decided this was that, crazy woman from last summer – “I don’t want to mess with her.”  He turned and scrambled up the mountain into the woods. I never saw Chobani again all summer.

I intend to run a “bear smart” home on Naked Mountain which means I only feed birds between November and March and then remove all feeders and seed.  I also keep my recycle bins in the house and empty them frequently. In the summer, I keep my screen doors and windows open during the day to allow breezes through, but close and lock all of them at night and turn on the air conditioning (yuck.. but no choice; I miss the night sounds of cicadas). I avoid using the charcoal grill.

All of this is annoying, but I have chosen to live in the middle of a natural area preserve which means I am fortunate to see bears up close and personal now and then.  This is scary, but also very rewarding.  Bears are on Naked Mountain because I am ensuring they have good habitat for their survival.

So, Chobani, go out there and enjoy it and leave me alone!


 Does anyone have other ideas on how to be bear smart and prevent adverse bear encounters?




Cancer and Obama Inaugurals: Community Service Helps

Four years ago today, the first Inauguration of President Obama, my husband, Tim, began radiation therapy in an attempt to shrink back a deadly tumor in his pancreas discovered a few weeks earlier. His doctors hoped the treatment would work well enough to make him a candidate for the Whipple procedure, life-saving surgery for pancreatic cancer patients. It was his only chance at more years of life. He was 59 years old and otherwise very fit and healthy.

We lived in Reston, Virginia and had to travel that day to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Nearly two million people were expected to be on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to witness the historic event – the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American President. While we were very excited about the new President and hopeful about his leadership at a time of peril for the U.S. economy, we were terrified we would be hopelessly stuck in beltway traffic trying to get to Johns Hopkins and life-saving treatment for Tim. Fortunately, we had wonderful friends in the Baltimore area who offered us a room in their home. We traveled to Baltimore on January 19th, spent the night with our friends and were on time the next morning for Tim’s first radiation treatment.

The radiation worked to reduce the large tumor in the head of the pancreas, but chemotherapy had failed to prevent hundreds of small, granular-like tumors from developing and spreading throughout Tim’s abdomen. He was not a candidate for the Whipple procedure. He died on May 3, 2009.

One year later in June of 2010, Tim’s daughter, Susan, and I decided to do something to help pancreatic patients and their loved ones. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network was sponsoring the first Purple Stride in Washington, D.C. to raise money to advance research, support patients and create hope.  They were also holding an annual advocacy day to encourage Congress to pass the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act which would require the National Cancer Institute to develop a strategic plan to improve treatment, early detection, and prevention of pancreatic cancer, and several other persistently deadly cancers. The five year survival rate for pancreatic cancer it is just six percent.

Susan and I raised money from family and friends and walked with several thousand others joined together in grief, but especially in hope, to fight the disease that took their loved ones away. We also joined in the advocacy effort and worked for the next two and a half years to get the pancreatic cancer bill passed.

Purple Stride, DC 2010
Susan and me with Tim’s picture pinned to our backs

On January 3, 2013, President Obama signed the bill into law. In a Congress that had been marked by bitter partisan conflict, this bill garnered 234 co-sponsors in the House and 58 in the Senate.  Both political parties were heavily represented among the supporters. Susan and I are extremely gratified with this positive outcome that we had a small part in achieving. It helps ease our grief to know that we have helped to prevent this, and other deadly cancers, from robbing other families of their loved ones too soon.

President Obama and his wife Michele have asked Americans to set aside one day during this inaugural season to participate in community service of their choosing. I urge those who are suffering from cancer, and loss due to cancer, to join in this endeavor. It will lift your spirits. I promise.

Coyotes — Boon or Menace?

Coyotes are a growing presence, and some would say menace, in the Eastern United States, including Virginia.  While I have never seen one on Naked Mountain, I have seen signs that may indicate their presence – scat like a dog’s, but unlike dog scat, full of hair.  Neighbors have also heard coyotes calling and yipping.  They sound like a cross between a wolf and a dog alternating with a high-pitched howl and yip-like barking.

Coyote – photo from Wikipedia

Friends who live in southern Albemarle County, about seven miles away, told me an amazing story verifying rumors of coyote wiliness.  One day last summer, Will walked out to one of the barns on their 1200 acre farm accompanied by the family’s young bloodhound, Missy, and a visiting pet, a small mongrel named Riley.  The whole way out to the barn, the dogs ran at each other playfully.  When the threesome got to the barn, Will saw that a coyote, standing on the lip of the “slash,” or swampy area, behind the barn, was intently watching the dogs.  Will and his wife Ti knew that a family of coyotes had moved into the slash establishing a den there.  Will watched as the coyote trotted up to the playful dogs, who were unaware of its presence at first, and then engaged them in active play.  He was astonished as the coyote played with the dogs like it was one of them.  But then, the coyote ran a little distance away, turning back to glance at the dogs in a kind of invitation.  Missy froze and just stared.  Riley chased after the coyote who then led him down the sloping field toward the slash.  When Will turned his glance to the slash he saw two other coyotes standing there, intently watching the approaching pair.  Will saw the developing danger for Riley and called frantically to him.  Finally, in the nick of time, he got his attention and Riley ran to Will, leaving his strange new companion behind.  If he hadn’t, the threesome pack of coyotes would have made quick work of poor little Riley.

 Deer hunting season has just concluded in Virginia and many hunters in the Naked Mountain area are reporting that the number of deer are significantly down.  Some hunters believe the influx of coyotes are responsible.  Many wildflower enthusiasts, like myself, would cheer this possibility.  On Naked Mountain, deer browse on many native plants including beautiful wildflowers like Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis),

Bloodroot — Photo from Jennifer Anderson @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

which I have watched decline since my husband and I purchased Naked Mountain in 1988.  

I called Matt Knox, one of two deer project coordinators with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) to ask him if he thought coyotes could be responsible for a decline in the deer population. He told me that coyotes used to be rare in the state twenty years ago when he started work with the VDGIF, but now they are commonplace.  Over the twenty years Matt said the population of deer in the state has been stable.  Some years the number of deer killed by hunters is down as in 2010, the year after a winter when a foot of snow was on the ground in most of the state for 60-90 days. Many deer starved and did not reproduce in the Spring.  He also said they would be easy targets for coyotes who can walk on top of crusty snow, while deer punch through, slowing them down. But in 2011, the deer population was up.  This year, Matt has had many reports that hunters have killed many fewer deer, but the numbers from the state’s many check points will not be available for several months.  Matt noted that the deer population in the Western United States has long co-existed with coyotes and their numbers have not suffered.  He then told me about an interesting research project that is investigating coyote behavior.

 I called Mike Fies, wildlife biologist with VDGIF, who is directing the “Ecology of the Eastern Coyote” research project.  It is being carried out at Virginia Tech by a professor there and two graduate students.  The project is designed to answer questions about whether or not coyotes are impacting the deer population in western Virginia where the numbers of deer on public lands, like the George Washington National Forest, are down. Mike said this may be due to many factors including expanding poor habitat as trees are not cut and forests mature.  He noted that the bear population has been increasing quite rapidly and that bears, in addition to coyotes, are predating deer fawns. 

 The research will impart information about the Eastern coyote which is a very different animal than its better known Western cousin.  The Eastern coyote is larger, possibly because it has interbred with the Canadian Red Wolf  in its migration East, and it has different habits.  The project traps coyotes and fits them with radio collars so their movements and denning behavior can be tracked.  Researchers are also collecting and analyzing coyote scat to determine what the animal has eaten.  The scat is subjected to DNA analysis to ensure that it is coyote and not bobcat or bear scat.  The DNA analysis also allows researchers to identify specific individual coyotes providing  a rich database of ecological information. 

 The three year project is in its second year.  Stay tuned.