Published May 25, 2023

What can bear hunting traditions teach us about race, class, and changing landscapes in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp?


Black bears of the Great Dismal Swamp are smarter than those at Shenandoah National Park, Mike Lane tells me. As an independent forestry consultant who trapped bears in and around the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Lane would know. Lane is a resident of Suffolk, Virginia, with roots there that stretch back centuries. In the 1980s, Lane joined a Virginia Tech research study on the swamp’s black bear. Led by Dr. Michael R. Vaughan, this study aimed to document the animal’s demographics, range, hibernation, and other habits.

This research study grew out of centuries-long traditions of Virginians living among black bears. This bruin held cultural significance for those raised in the swamp, as class and racial tensions shaped hunting and trapping traditions.

Mountain Bears, Swamp Bears

To prepare for their foray into the Great Dismal Swamp, Lane and a colleague first embarked on training in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park. Since its founding in 1935, the park has served as a prime location for studying bears. As of 2023, several hundred bears live in the park, accounting for much of the state’s approximately 6000 bears. [1]

Thanks to differences in terrain and agricultural, residential, and economic development, the bears of the Blue Ridge Mountains have developed different habits than those in the Dismal Swamp. The landscape is vastly different—the swamp is an entangled morass of vines, gnarled roots, and spongy, oozing soils—but so is the human and cultural history.

When Lane began this work in the 1980s, the Dismal Swamp refuge, which today stretches into North Carolina, was no more than ten years old. Until 1973, the wetland was held in private and commercial hands, including the forest products company, Union Camp of Franklin, VA (now International Paper). Before that, vast tracts of the Dismal Swamp were managed for agriculture and logging for two centuries.

Virginia’s black bears cultivated distinct behaviors depending on their habitat. According to one account in a 1928 conservation magazine:

When a logging gang goes into a section of the swamp the bears move out and are seen no more until the cutting is finished and the road of the ‘skidders’, the crash of falling trees and the whistle of the ‘dinkey’ locomotives has died away; and then, almost as soon as the tracks are pulled up, they are back again.” [2]

Hunting Bears in the Great Dismal Swamp

Hunting practices have long been shaped by racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. To wealthy white male sportsmen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hunting black bear in the Dismal Swamp exhibited macho prowess. This was especially true for sportsmen who hailed from outside the U.S. South, as they showcased their supposed daring to enter this wetland, cloaked in mystery and lore.

In the decades that followed the Civil War, travel literature boosted the Dismal Swamp as prime bear hunting territory. In sportsmen’s magazines like Forest and Stream and newspapers like the Virginian-Pilot, journalists reported on the pleasures of bear trapping in the swamp. Yet as many journalists remarked, white sportsmen from outside the South were often advised to hire locals, especially black Virginians and Native peoples, believed to hold rich ecological knowledge of the region. While early twentieth-century articles and advertisements were often steeped in the racist language of Jim Crow Virginia, this media also acknowledged the importance of black and Native hunting and trapping traditions.

Detail from M.L. Richardson, “Hunting in Historic Dismal Swamp,” Game and Fish Conservationist (July-August 1923): 53.

For poor whites, black residents, and Native peoples living in and near the Dismal Swamp, bear hunting was one trapping and hunting tradition among many that offered sustenance, independence, and demonstrated a deep relationship to place. Like maroons and other self-emancipated enslaved people who found refuge in the swamp prior to the Civil War, black Virginians and Nansemond people continued to depend on wetlands as a source of sustenance. These traditions were often a form of resistance against white supremacist regimes, whereby black and Native residents of Virginia could subvert racist laws.

Black bear was crucial to subsistence hunters who lived near the wetland. Local farmers were known to hunt and trap “nuisance bears” that ravaged their fields. Meanwhile, the Nansemond people were skilled bear hunters in the Dismal Swamp’s depths. [3] The Nansemond had migrated to and settled within the northern reaches of the Dismal Swamp in the late eighteenth century, following decades of colonial violence upon British arrival in 1607. Black residents and poor whites—many of whom worked for logging companies in the swamp—also supplemented their diets with provisions from the swamp. The black bear therefore held cultural significance for those raised in the swamp, as class and racial tensions shaped hunting and trapping traditions.

1980s Research on Black Bear Habits

Unlike those who hunted for game or subsistence, Mike Lane and his colleague trapped for research study. This involved learning bears’ habits: the trails they take, the dens they settle, and how they raise their young. In trapping for study purposes, they would not kill the bear but sedate, tag, and give lip tattoos to the bears for tracking.

After six weeks of instruction, they returned to the swamp, equipped with the knowledge they gained from training at Shenandoah National Park. But they were surprised to learn that they needed to translate skills of trapping in the mountains for swamp terrain.

View a transcript of this audio

Over time, Lane honed these skills and became the refuge’s on-call bear trapper. While much of his early trapping served the purposes of the Virginia Tech study, he also received calls from farmers to respond to nuisance bears. The first time he encountered the bear, he gave it an ear tag and lip tattoo. If farmers crossed paths with the same bear again, they could qualify for a kill permit. Yet Lane found that bears rarely returned to the same field twice, fearful of their prior experience.

View a transcript of this audio

Our Shared Habitat

Since the 1980s study, Lane has continued to reflect on land management and how best to navigate bear-human relations at the swamp. As he has written elsewhere, bears increasingly live on “islands” of habitat where they become further enclosed by residential, agricultural, and commercial development. This poses a challenge for bears and humans as compatible neighbors.

As landscapes change, both animal and human behaviors adapt, and as cultural knowledge shifts—like knowing how to trap (or avoid!) a bear—animal-human relationships also evolve. According to Lane, conservationists must therefore balance the “biological carrying-capacity of habitat” by the “cultural carrying-capacity.” By that Lane wonders, how much damage can bears cause before they become “regarded as a nuisance rather than a resource”? [4]

To protect Virginians and their iconic bruin, Lane encourages the preservation of rural landscapes across state, federal, and private landowners. Just don’t leave any honey buns in your yard, or you may entice an unwanted guest.


Perri Meldon is a PhD candidate at Boston University, where she studies the cultural and ecological histories of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. She also holds a Park History Fellowship with the National Park Service. Perri lives in central Virginia.


Works Cited

[1] “American Black Bear,” Shenandoah National Park, last updated April 25, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/nature/black-bear.htm.

[2] John B. Lewis, “Wild Life of the Dismal Swamp,” Game and Fish Conservationist (Richmond, November-December 1928): 95.

[3] Frank G. Speck, Indian Notes and Monographs: Chapters on the Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes, ed. F.W. Hodge, vol. 1, no. 5 (New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1928). 280, 332.

[4] Michael Lane, “Conservation of Black Bear Habitat on Private Land in the Great Dismal Swamp Ecosystem,” in The Natural History of the Great Dismal Swamp, ed. Robert K. Rose (Madison: Omni Press, 1998), 214.

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