Virginia'™s Best Bear Hunting

Virginia's bear population is growing — and that's good news for the bears and the hunters who pursue them. (Nov 2006)

When I was a boy growing up in Salem, the year I was 10 (1962) my parents decided they would take my sister and me on a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. One of the main reasons for this trip was to view black bears — an animal that none of us had ever seen, even though my parents had grown up in rural Franklin County.

When my family arrived at the park and saw bruins prowling through trash cans along the road, my mom had Dad stop the Ford Galaxy and she snapped color slides of the creatures. Upon our return home, I regaled my neighborhood male peers with tales of how my sister and I had escaped the jaws of death.

Today, I seriously doubt that anyone from Virginia would feel the need to travel to the Smoky Mountains just to observe black bears. Indeed, the bear population seems to be doing quite well here in Virginia.

During the 2005-06 season, hunters tagged 1,440 bears — the second highest kill on record. The harvest included some 60 percent males for a tally of 871 and 569 sows. Overall, the total was 27 percent greater than the 2004-05 harvest of 1,130 and just 5 percent lower than the record kill of 1,511 in 2003-04.

Last year's harvest showed increases in most categories. Archers arrowed 311 animals, a 52 percent increase from the previous year's tally of 205 and 22 percent of the total harvest. During their four-day season, smokepolers checked in 146 animals, 10 percent of the harvest and a 59 percent jump from 2004-05.

The regular firearms kill reached 983 with 715 of those taken during the hound season. Before dog season began, gun hunters took 268 bruins, a drop of 13 percent from the 2004-05 total of 308. The dog season harvest, however, was 36 percent higher than the previous year's 526.

Regionally, the kill also showed an upsurge. West of the Blue Ridge, the harvest was 1,089, an increase of 24 percent from 2004-05. East of the Blue Ridge, the tally was 351, up 24 percent. As expected, the three traditional bear gathering grounds the eight counties that have parts of the Shenandoah National Park, the western mountains, and the Great Dismal Swamp accounted for 94 percent of the harvest.

The top counties (with their harvests in parentheses) were Rockingham (153), Madison (95), Alleghany (88), Augusta (86), Rockbridge (84), Albemarle (66), Shenandoah (66), Page (60), Rappahannock (57) and Bath (56).

Dave Steffen, research biologist supervisor for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), confirms that three areas of the state host the most bruins.

"One of the biggest concentrations is in the counties that make up the Shenandoah National Park (SNP), in particular Page County," he said. "Rockingham, Madison, Greene, Warren and Rappahannock counties also contain plenty of bears.

"The Dismal Swamp area in Tidewater is another area of concentration. In the Alleghany Mountains, county populations are also good from Highland, Augusta and Albemarle south to Bland and Giles."

All of these regions typically feature a good kill per square mile of habitat. Indeed, in much of the state, bear numbers are increasing or at least holding steady. Notable exceptions include the counties in the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck regions of Tidewater, which have not had many bear sightings.

Bear densities in the Piedmont and Tidewater aren't particularly high. Steffen emphasized that the VDGIF is not looking for Northern Piedmont populations to increase, primarily because a high bear population in an area of dense human population usually creates problems for both the bears and the people near them.

Conversely, the biologist noted that the VDGIF would like to see more bears in southwest Virginia. This area includes all of the counties south and west of Craig, Roanoke, Montgomery, Floyd and Carroll and domains such as Scott, Washington and Tazewell. The rugged terrain and relatively small human population offer the potential for future population growth for this big-game animal.

Steffen also notes that the VDGIF has a population growth objective for much of the Southern Piedmont and Tidewater. The counties slated for higher bear populations are included in an area bounded by Mecklenburg, Charlotte, Prince Edward, Cumberland, Amelia, Dinwiddie, Prince George, Surry, Isle of Wight and Southampton.

Ideally, though, the black bear population in this region will grow slowly. Remember, explained the biologist, that while bear enthusiasts of different kinds might desire an increase, some farmers, orchard owners and beehive operators, to name just three groups, might not be so thrilled about a rapid rise in bear numbers. The VDGIF is hoping that bear numbers will stabilize in other Piedmont counties as Pittsylvania, Halifax, Campbell, Appomattox and Buckingham.

Currently, there are three different bear seasons from which the VDGIF can gather data, plus the bear hound training season. Information on bear age is gleaned from a tooth that must be detached as part of the check station process. Sportsmen are also reminded that all bears must be checked at an official bear check station. A list of check stations is available on the VDGIF Web site or by calling (804) 367-1000. Bruins cannot be checked through the telephone checking system. Here are the season dates for this year:

A statewide bear archery season — Oct. 14-Nov. 11.

Muzzleloading (certain counties) — Nov. 14-17.

Firearms (certain western counties) — Nov. 27-Jan. 6; Southwest (some counties), Dec. 4-16; and Chesapeake, Suffolk and Virginia Beach, Nov. 6-Jan. 6.

Hound Training — Western, Aug. 12-Sept. 30; Eastern (counties of Brunswick, Greensville, Lunenburg and Mecklenburg), Dec. 4-16.

Only one black bear can be killed per license year, and it must be at least 100 pounds live weight or 75 pounds field dressed (all internal organs removed). Females with cubs may not be harvested.

Please note that the bear regulations are often very county and region specific. Study carefully the Hunting & Trapping in Virginia regulations for 2006-2007.

Also, Steffen offers some fascinating information about bear reproduction and harvest.

"Most of the bears harvested are males and nearly half of them are only 2 years old," he said. "This high mortality rate on young male bears means that we don't seem to have many older, dominant males in our hunted bear populations. We also now know that the annual variations we sometimes see in our bear harvests are related to the number of 2-year-old bears i

n the population.

"Peaks in our bear harvest coincide with large numbers of 2-year-old bears in the population. The periodic appearance of many 2-year-olds happens when a mast failure causes synchronization in female breeding. This synchrony results in a bumper crop of cubs during some years."

Finally, the biologist suggested that sportsmen and the general public interested in learning more about the Old Dominion's bear population and distribution consult the VDGIF's Web site at www.dgif.virginia.gov. Search for "The Virginia Black Bear Management Plan."

VIRGINIA BEAR HUNTERS

Dave Steffen is very complimentary of the Virginia Bear Hunters Association.

"The leaders of this group have been very good partners with the game department and are very good stewards of the resource," he said. "The association is a very important part of the bear management process."

Este Fisher, president of the Virginia Bear Hunters Association (VBHA), offers these comments.

"I believe that our Mission Statement on our home page describes what the VBHA is all about," he said. "We are currently working in other areas to develop better hunter outreach programs and more youth involvement."

The mission statement, explains Fisher, speaks of the need for the VBHA to preserve the pastime of hunting bears with sporting dogs and the need for bear hunters to practice "ethical hunting standards and practice fair chase and sportsman-like hunting." The statement also speaks of its objective to "improve our relationship with the private landowner and eliminate trespassing issues." Overall, the organization recognizes the need to build on its "working relationship with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the National Forest Service and the Virginia legislature."

For more information on the VBHA, consult their Web site at www.virginiabearhunters.org. Or contact the organization at Virginia Bear Hunters Association, 5927 Paint Bank Rd., New Castle, VA 24127.

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