This is the juvenile bear that tried to break the window. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
This is the juvenile bear that tried to break the window. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Without warning, the bear reared up on its hind legs and smashed its front paws against the window.

There I was, about a foot away, eye-to-eye with the angry beast.

* * * 

Since I’m writing this account — and the headline is “The day a bear tried to break into my house” and not “Fincastle man mauled by bear, last seen dragged off into the woods screaming ‘But I have to make deadline!’” — you can surmise that I survived this encounter. And since the headline isn’t “Fincastle man charged with shooting bear out of season,” you can surmise the bear did, too.

There’s an old saying in the news business that no story is ever as important as the one that happened to the editor, so today I’ll uphold the truth of that saying. For those who might miss my daily dose of political commentary, I’ll offer this: Sometimes I write about all the things that both rural and urban Virginia have in common. Sometimes I write about all the ways in which we’re different. This column falls more into the latter category. I suspect our readers in Northern Virginia do not have to worry about opening their front door and finding a bear waiting for them — as I have on numerous occasions.

Yes, I suppose that’s my fault for living in the backwoods of Botetourt County — at least that’s how the bears see it — but the growing frequency of close encounters with my ursine neighbors does highlight the intersection of public policy, the economy and science. 

Bear with me while I explain. (Sorry, I think that pun is required for any story about bears.)

In the beginning … well, OK, we won’t go back quite that far. Bears, though, do predate humans by several million years, which is sort of the problem for both species as we now try to cohabit the same space. I’m thinking I have a problem with bears in my backyard; the bears think they have a problem with humans in theirs — or maybe an opportunity. We’ll get to that shortly.

Bears of some sort immigrated from Asia to North America about 7 million to 8 million years ago. The date for when the first humans wandered across the Bering Strait from Siberia to modern-day Alaska is in dispute — the earliest date is now put at about 20,000 years ago. Regardless, you can see there’s quite a difference. Bears were here first. 

Range of American black bears, then and now. Courtesy of International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
The dark shade shows the current range of American black bears. The lighter shade shows territory where they once lived. Courtesy of International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

We quickly found out, though, that bears were good for eating and wearing. By the early 1900s, there were only about 1,000 to 1,500 bears left in Virginia, mostly in the mountains west of the Blue Ridge or around the Great Dismal Swamp. Today the bear population in Virginia is estimated at 18,000 to 20,000 (they’re notoriously bad about filling out census forms), and their official range is all over the state with the exception of the counties along the Chesapeake Bay. 

Wait — even Northern Virginia? Even Arlington and Alexandria?


Young black bear spotted in Arlington.” — NBC4, Washington, June 18, 2023

So maybe I was wrong. Maybe Northern Virginians do need to worry about opening their door and finding a bear.

Where bears can be found in Virginia. Source: Department of Wildlife Resources.
Where bears can be found in Virginia. Source: Department of Wildlife Resources.

So why has a more populated state resulted in more bears? Aren’t people bad for the environment? That depends on which environment you’re talking about.

Here’s that intersection of public policy, economy and science I promised.

The reason there were so few bears about 1900 is that we’d hunted them nearly to death and clear-cut much of their habitat. It wasn’t until 1916 that we had any hunting laws at all — before then, every day was hunting season. We also often forget this key part: Virginia is a lot more forested now than it was then. The Virginia Department of Forestry says that “by the mid-1800s, most lands that were not too steep to plow or graze had been cleared.” That was bad for bears because bears like woods. They also like trash cans, but we’ll get to that. “During the Great Depression, people moved to cities resulting in idle lands again returning to forests,” the Department of Forestry says.

Between restrictions on hunting and farmland returning to forestland, bears began to make a gradual comeback, says Jim Parkhurst, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. Gradual is the key word, he says. Bears reproduce slowly. A female bear only gives birth every other year, and then typically to two or three cubs. The first year the cubs tag along with mama bear and then hibernate with her. Come the following spring, the females tend to stick around but the males — by now the equivalent of ursine teenagers — are kicked out. And that’s where the trouble starts.

“Typically the bears that are getting in trouble are those young juveniles — the males — as they try to figure things out,” Parkhurt says. “They’ve got some challenges. They’re not experienced in where to find food. They’re being harassed by the older males who already have established territory and will not tolerate competitors, and the females generally aren’t receptive to having them around. So these guys are wandering around getting into trouble.”

In other words, much like teenage boys without any video games to play.

These are the bears that wind up in urban areas — be it that bear wandering through the Windy Run Park area of Arlington, or the bear that wound up in downtown Roanoke recently, or the one that roamed through a Blacksburg parking garage.

If you’re a bear, city living is pretty easy. No scavenging for food the way you have to do out in the woods. People set out whole buffets for you! We call them bird feeders and pet food dishes and trash cans but bears look at these the way your Uncle Marvin looks at the buffet at Golden Corral. Outta my way, mister! Don’t get between me and the hush puppies!

“They go where the resources are convenient for them,” Parkhurst says. And that usually means where people are. “Facebook is lit up with it right now,” he says. “My wife is on a group from Floyd and they are just off the wall with how many people are talking about bear problems in Floyd right now. You’re not alone — this has been an unusual number. We must have had a couple good years of production because we have a lot of crazy young bears running around.”

That might explain the poor bear found clinging to a tree in downtown Roanoke — it was euthanized because it was so malnourished — but doesn’t fully explain my situation, or the situation of some of my neighbors in Botetourt County.

I’ve lived in the same house for 40 years. For the first 30 years, we never saw a bear. In the past few years, the sightings have grown from occasional ones to regular ones. One night last fall I heard a noise on the deck and looked out to find not one, not two, but three bears. So far this year I’ve seen four different bears: an adult bear, two baby bears (which makes me think the adult bear was a mama bear) and the juvenile male with whom I’ve had my most dramatic encounter. 

This year’s bear troubles began in the usual way: overturned trash cans. They are as sure a sign of spring as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. Securing them with rope does no good. The bear pulled those off. Ammonia is said to be good bear repellent. Not for this one. Eventually I declared a tactical retreat and now we keep the trash indoors until trash day.

We rarely saw the animal and it otherwise caused no trouble. I named it Stormy because it seemed to make its presence known most often after a storm. All that was a normal bear interaction for these parts — but then they turned abnormal. One morning, my wife informed me that Stormy had broken into my car and carried a bag of cat food halfway up the driveway. (I must say that the Rachael Ray brand of cat food is quite well packaged; the bear failed to open the bag.) Being country people, we’ve never felt a need to lock the car at night. That night, I locked the car (and took the cat food inside).

Bears are quick learners, unfortunately. Stormy came back that night, looking for more. Finding the car locked, Stormy pulled off a door handle. When I mentioned this to a mechanic at the service station where I take my car, I was regaled with stories about all the damage that bears can do to cars. For the next week, we routinely found bear paw prints on my car and on my wife’s vehicle. It looked as if the bear had checked every window, looking for an opening.

On the few occasions where I did spot Stormy ambling out of the woods, all it took was a shout to send the bear scurrying back to safety. I was still steamed about the broken door handle but we seemed to have come to an uneasy truce. We wouldn’t put out the trash, the bear would overturn an empty trash can and then leave, grumbling about how the menu has gone downhill. Then one day I saw two cubs scampering through the back yard. I never saw a mama bear but also knew better than to go investigate. I’m guessing Stormy might be a she.

Then came the teenage bear — or the rough equivalent thereof. 

Here at Cardinal, we have no central office; we’re the classic remote workers because that keeps the overhead down. My work space looks out on the deck so I saw the bear as soon as it ambled up the steps. This was clearly a different bear from Stormy, smaller and unafraid. The standard advice is to yell at the bear and wave your arms to make yourself appear bigger than he is. I tried all that but the bear didn’t care. I opened the door and ventured out onto the deck — don’t worry, it’s a big deck — and tried the same. The bear just looked at me and seemed quite unimpressed. 

Parkhurst tells me that’s a bad sign. “Some of these guys are quickly losing the innate fear they should have of humans,” he says. “That’s what worries me the most. You’ve got to be bold and not make that bear feel comfortable being there.”

Of course, you’ve also got to avoid being eaten.

“Unprovoked bear attacks are very rare, and have never been documented in Virginia,” says the state’s Department of Wildlife Resources. However, you and the bear might disagree on what constitutes unprovoked. 

I Survived a Bear Attack on the Appalachian Trail,” writes a hiker about how a bear charged her tent near Glasgow in Rockbridge County in May.

Floyd County family shares experience of bear attack that killed their dog,” Roanoke television station WDBJ7 reported in June.

Woman attacked by bear in Tazewell,” reported West Virginia station WVNS-TV in June.

So how do you make a bear feel unwelcome without getting slashed to death? After making noise and demonstrating my height failed to deter this bear, I resorted to the nearest weapon at hand — a potato. I felt if I could make the beast sting a bit it would come to understand that it’s place was somewhere other than here. Unfortunately, my throw went high and wide, which means not only was the bear undeterred — I’m not even sure it noticed the sailing spud — but it meant no Major League Baseball team in need of pitching help has come calling, either. 

At that point I felt I had two choices: I could either charge the bear, wrap it in a bear hug (see what I did there?) and wrestle it to the ground until it cried “uncle!,” or I could retreat indoors and wait things out.

After some consideration (admittedly not that much consideration), I chose the latter.

I did, though, have a second line of defense: a guard cat.

Billy, in the window, first spotted the bear. Hazel, on the table, first surveyed it from a safer distance. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
Billy, in the window, first spotted the bear. Hazel, on the table, first surveyed it from a safer distance. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

I have two indoor cats. Billy is a sweet oaf of significant girth but limited intelligence and even more limited motivation; Hazel is a fierce little inquisitor who might be the smartest cat I’ve ever had (and insists on participating in every Zoom call I ever make). 

Billy was sunning himself in the window when the bear appeared. He just gawked at the bruin. Hazel was elsewhere in the house but sensed danger and came running to investigate.

You do not want to mess with Hazel.

Billy decided to settle down to watch the show but Hazel moved closer to the bear, quite unhappy about its presence. Shortly after this photo was taken, the two got into an argument over territorial rights. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

At first, she studied the bear from afar, then she moved into position in the window beside Billy, crouched low, every muscle on alert. When the bear moved closer to the window, Hazel hissed  — not a dainty little “get away from me” hiss, either. This was a prolonged hiss of much deeper feeling, a hiss that can only be described as a hiss from the depths of Hell.

I have consulted numerous experts in feline linguistics to determine the exact translation of just what it is Hazel said in her hiss. Interpretations differ. If she spoke in the traditional Old Cat, she likely said something like this:

“Beware, rogue ursine intruder! You may think me but a soft and pampered indoor pet but I must warn you that I am a fierce and proud daughter of lionesses! I am the acknowledged queen of this realm who has subjugated these awkward bipeds into serving my every need. Even the other cat whose presence here I grudgingly accept fears my wrath and does not dare dispute my regal throne atop the stereo stand where I can lord over all that I can see and conduct my joint experiments in interior redesign and gravity using what the humans call ‘sentimental knick-knacks.’ If you do not depart these premises forthwith, I shall shred you the same way I have shredded the scratching post [or possibly “sofa”]. I shall rip your eyeballs out the way I have disassembled every cat toy I have been offered as tribute. I will leave your carcass but a broken stub of itself the same way I did that houseplant one of my human servants foolishly brought into this fortress. I am the mighty Hazel, unrepentant destroyer of all things I do not understand and many that I do.” 

If she spoke in a more modern dialect, it probably went like this: “Hey bear, get off my lawn!” Or, possibly, the more universally understood: “@#$%^&*!”

Fortunately, the bear clearly heard this through the glass and, even more fortunately, understood its meaning. Unfortunately, the bear also took offense — because that’s the point where it stood up and slammed its paws against the window. This bear is apparently a sensitive creature who did not like its bearhood being questioned by a skinny little cat who imagines itself a wild predator prowling the savanna. 

Remarkably, the glass did not break. (In the Hollywood version of this story, it will, and I will be played by someone heroic, such as Daniel Craig.)

Billy, being either a coward or a sensible being, leapt out of the window and ran so fast in the other direction that he ran smack through the water dish, overturning it and all the contents on the floor. Hazel, being either a brave warrior or a naive pet who thinks she’s bigger than she is, stood her ground — until I started yelling again at the bear. The bear just stared back and I began to wonder just how strong that glass is.

Hazel says she could have taken that bear. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
Hazel says she could have taken that bear if only her human servant had let her. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Fortunately, I never got to find out because the bear soon grew bored of all these noisy house-dwellers and wandered away. (For the record, Hazel the demon cat came back and assisted me in staring down the bear.) That evening, I went down to the Dollar General in Fincastle. The clerk asked how I was the way she probably does every customer. I gave her something to liven up her shift. “Well,” I told her, “I had a bear try to break into my house.” Next thing I know, every customer in the store is gathered around, sharing stories about their bears.

One man said he’d seen six bears this year. He described one particularly persistent bear that he tried to chase away — except the bear wouldn’t leave. “He stood his ground,” the fellow told me. “I ain’t scared but I ain’t stupid, either.” He is, though, inventive. He said he’d tried ammonia with the same unsatisfactory results I’d gotten. Instead, he’s devised a plan to put his trash can on a wire grate, which he intends to wire up to an outlet so when the bear goes to investigate it — well, let’s just say the results will be shocking. (I do not recommend this, by the way, but this is the same kind of survivalist spirit that inspired Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive.” I suspect “How would you deal with a bear?” would be a good test question for a political Rorschach test.)

Parkhurst suggests that the increasing number of bear encounters in Botetourt County — and other places — is likely driven by development. Some housing developments may have displaced bears, but they all act as magnets for bears in search of food. “We’re habituating these bears to develop an association with residential areas, which is never a good thing,” he says. “When they see a human and that prior has given them a reward [i.e., a trash can full of tasty morsels] they think every human will do that. What we’ve got to do is break that association before it develops.”

The Department of Wildlife Resource's objectives for bears in each of its 22 zones. Courtesy of the department.
The Department of Wildlife Resource’s objectives for bears in each of its 22 zones. Courtesy of the department.

Of course, that’s often easier said than done. One way is, well, um, to kill some of them. The bears, that is. The state has extended the bear season in Southwest Virginia and the Piedmont to increase the bear harvest. The Department of Wildlife Resources counts 22 zones in the state. In six of them, mostly west of the Blue Ridge, the goal is to reduce the bear population. In five others, in Southside and along the Chesapeake Bay, the goal is to increase it. For me, bear damage is measured in tossed trash cans and a broken car door handle. For some farmers, though, bear damage means real money if bears start harvesting the corn crop before farmers can. 

Another way to deal with bears is to do a better job of training us humans. In 2014, the Department of Wildlife Resources established a Wildlife Conflict Hotline: 855-571-9003. The goal is to provide scientific advice on how to deal with wildlife, Parkurst says, so people “aren’t going out on the internet and trying to find answers and getting all kinds of crap.” Or, say, relying on the fellow at the Dollar General to tell me how he’s planning to cut an electrical cord in two to supply electricity to his makeshift bear-repellent device. 

Bears and deer go back and forth as the top complaint, Parkhurst says. “We’ve been averaging 1,500 to 3,500 calls specifically about bears a year.”

Meanwhile, out in bear-land, there’s probably another type of hotline: “Hey, don’t forget that Wednesday is trash day around Fincastle. All you can eat.”

Hear a legislator sing

Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey
Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, prepares to sing the national anthem. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

Earlier week I spoke at the state convention of voter registrars that met at the Hotel Roanoke. I write about that in this week’s edition of West of the Capital, our free weekly political newsletter that goes out Fridays at 3 p.m. If you’re not already signed up, you can sign up here.

A bonus this week: A link to video of Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, singing the national anthem. Head (who is also running for the state Senate this fall) is a former college music major who is an in-demand anthem singer.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at