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Bear encounters close camping areas

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

If you’re planning to camp in George Washington or Jefferson national forests anytime soon, call ahead because some may be closed.

U.S. Forest Service announced Friday about 20,000 acres of national forest lands in Grayson and Smyth counties are being closed temporarily to camping due to increased encounters between bear and humans.

“With a recent increase in black bear activity in the area, the temporary closure is necessary for public health and safety,” said Ranger Barry Garten. He said the Forest Service and other agencies are evaluating options for addressing human-bear conflicts. The temporary closure will help facilitate the process.

Impacted areas will be reopened as soon as possible, according to Garten.

Portions of the Mount Rogers National Recreation high country and a segment of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail are closed to camping. Areas impacted include Elk Garden, Thomas Knob Shelter, the Scales, Old Orchard Shelter, and about 17 miles of the Appalachian Trail (Forest Trail #1 between VA-600 at Elk Garden and VA-603 at Fox Creek.

Virginia State Parks also is closing Wise Shelter at Grayson Highlands State Park, adjacent to Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and part of the high country’s system of shelters. Day use of the area for hiking and horseback riding is permitted under the closure.

Agencies are working to develop a long-term solution to the problem. Both national forests are home to “an increasing healthy population of black bears,” according to the forest service. Other agencies involved are Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Grayson Highlands State Park, National Park Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Mount Rogers Appalachian Trail Club.

The forest service urges backcountry visitors to familiarize themselves with Leave No Trace methods of securing food. While bears prefer to natural food sources, they are opportunists and will feed on human foods it unsecured.

Once they gain access to human food sources, they often habitually turn to those sources of food. This creates safety issues for humans and the bears.

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