By Jessica Farrish
It’s common for deer to dart into traffic this time of year in West Virginia, but several motorists say the West Virginia Turnpike needs a “black bear crossing” sign in the Pax area.
At least two of the “state animals” have been struck by vehicles this week, around Mile Marker 61 and just north of the Pax toll plaza in Fayette County.
A Beckley woman who witnessed the accident Monday night was driving home from the airport around 11:30 p.m. when she narrowly missed hitting a very large black bear that barreled onto the roadway.
She said the bear hit the car behind her, then the bear kept running across the turnpike.
Kristin Canterbury was headed south, traveling around 60 mph in the righthand lane of traffic, when a shadowy shape appeared to her right, advancing from the shoulder of the highway.
“I just got a glimpse in my peripheral vision of some movement to my right,” Canterbury recalled. “Suddenly, this thing, it’s like it materialized.”
Her headlights were shining straight onto a very large black bear, just feet in front of her.
“I knew exactly what it was the minute I saw it,” she said, adding that she and her passenger were close enough to make out the outline of the bear’s snout. “It just ran right out in front of my car.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to hit a bear, in my car.’”
Canterbury said she’s glad she’d started to slow her speed, in preparation for an upcoming toll plaza. She was able to swerve to the right shoulder, back to the roadway, and then pull again to the right shoulder and park.
Unlike deer, which often freeze when they see oncoming headlights, the black bear kept running across the roadway.
It ran straight into the passenger side of a vehicle that was traveling in the passing lane.
The bear kept its pace, however, and successfully crossed the turnpike without causing any more accidents.
Canterbury said the driver of the struck vehicle pulled to the left shoulder of the road.
“Even before they pulled over, I saw the whole side of the passenger side was dented in,” she said.
She reported the family of four in the rental vehicle were on their way back to Florida when they were waylaid by the black bear from wild, wonderful West Virginia.
Although they were shaken, she said, they weren’t hurt.
Canterbury, widow of the late Fayette County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Mitch Canterbury, urged the family to file a police report for the rental car company.
“I remember my late husband telling me about deer, that ... mating season comes along, and they’re going to be crossing the road,” she added. “So now it’s not just deer we have to look out for, it’s bears.”
She added that toll booth workers reported having spotted six or seven bears on the roadway over the past couple of weeks.
Canterbury, who works in Charleston, said she travels the turnpike daily and will be on the lookout for bears during her commutes to and from work.
On Thursday morning, former Register-Herald editor Butch Antolini spotted a dead bear, likely a juvenile, near Mile Marker 61, near Pax. He estimated that the bear was around 100 pounds and said it appeared to have been struck earlier that morning.
Colin Carpenter, black bear project leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said it’s not immediately clear why so many bears are crossing the turnpike in the Pax area.
“It’s hard to say why, but it has to do with topography, most likely,” he said. “There’s something that’s focusing bear movement at that point.”
Carpenter explained that black bears — the only kind of bear in the eastern United States and one that is very common in West Virginia — cross roadways more often when yearly mast crops like acorns and other nuts and berries show below-average yields.
“They’re trying to pack on weight before they go in the den,” he said.
Although some wild crops are average this year, acorns are scarce, Carpenter said.