Bright Prospects for Virginia Bear Hunters

Bright Prospects for Virginia Bear Hunters

Last year Virginia bear hunters killed the second highest number of bears ever, and the outlook for this season looks just as good.

Photo by R.E. Ilg

By Marc N. McGlade

As I pulled into the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' (VDGIF) large parking lot early on May 1, 2003, I saw a fair-sized crowd of folks milling about. Two busloads of bear hunters were heading from the steps of the bus to the VDGIF building to voice their opinion on wide-sweeping changes being proposed by VDGIF that would ultimately affect their fate as bruin hunters.

The hunters won some and lost some of these arguments. Bear hunters, board members, the public and wildlife biologists compromised on a few issues at the public meeting. The crowd that attended the meeting was estimated at more than 200 hunters and spokespersons for various groups.

The board made the feeding of bears on private lands illegal - to address nuisance bear issues - and claimed it was far too easy for hunters to come along later with hounds. Hunters contended that feeding bears helped the animals through lean seasons when food wasn't always available. Hunters came in second place in that battle.

Wildlife Division chief Bob Duncan said, "Bears that are fed - that is, panhandler bears - are no longer wild bears. There's no other species like a bear if they get habituated to food rewards."

The board agreed. Now it's illegal to feed bears on public and private land, even for wildlife watching.

It's also now illegal to use radio-tracking equipment, except on dogs, to aid in the chase, harvest or capture of not just bears but also any wildlife. The exception is radio-tracking equipment for wildlife management or for hunters who use telemetry to locate or recover their roaming dogs.

One of the biggest wins for bear hunters is to continue hunting and chasing bears in a large section of Roanoke County. Residents from the area claimed that as the population density of people increases, conflicts escalate between property owners and bear hunters and their dogs.

However, the board, ceding that bear hunts on Havens Wildlife Management Area and Fort Lewis Mountain were a tradition, voted to allow hunters and dogs to use the public land involved, but made it clear they expected hunters in that area to be more respectful of landowners.

This meeting established hunting laws for the next two years. With historic high numbers of black bears in Virginia, hunters routinely bag close to 1,000 bears in a season. Not tallied in the number, of course, are the bears that are killed by automobiles or by other means.

Duncan said, "Most of the bears examined during last year's hunting season, as part of the Cooperative Alleghany Bear Study (CABS), were in good to excellent condition again."

Cub production last year was excellent with many sows bearing (pardon the pun) three cubs per litter. At least four of the sows had four-cub litters.

"Once again, hunters reported seeing more bears and bear sign than they had in previous years, which is certainly a good indicator for this upcoming season," he said.

Virginia has the longest-running and most comprehensive mast surveys in the country. As a whole, last year's oak mast production was rated only fair to poor in the west and good in the east. With the amount of rainfall Virginia has experienced in 2003, the prospects are good this fall for soft mast such as wild grape, dogwood, black gum, cherry, autumn olive and blueberry, Duncan said.

Virginia's bear population and harvests are growing, but bears remain a challenging animal to hunt. They have excellent senses and will generally avoid people. They can also run 30 mph through the woods, climb trees and are excellent swimmers. In the Great Dismal Swamp, seeing a swimming bear is not especially unusual.

In other words, there are more and more bears for hunters to hunt in Virginia, but they are not easy game to kill.

Virginia's 2002-2003 black bear harvest jumped up to 932 bears, up from 874 the previous year, representing a 6.6 percent increase. Year-end totals were 602 males, or 64.6 percent, and 330 females, or 35.4 percent. This was the second-largest annual kill total.

As usual, the majority of the harvest belonged to the region west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Bear hunters killed 630 specimens west of the mountains, while east of the old hills 302 bears were tagged. The 302 bears killed in the east are the most since 1997.

Rockingham County again topped the list for bear harvest in the state. In this bear-rich county, 133 bears found their way into hunters' sights.

Archers bagged 244 bears, which represent 26.2 percent of the total harvest. During the portion of the gun season - which overlaps the second week of the two-week deer season - hunters killed 268 bears, or 28.8 percent of the annual harvest.

Harvest was down slightly during the dog (hound) season: 420 bears were killed, representing an 8.1 percent decrease from the 457 individuals that were killed during the previous year.

According to Duncan, "Exceptionally poor hunting weather in the western mountains, such as ice, snow and cold, also contributed to the decrease in harvest by hunters who used hounds."

"Good habitat is made up of a variety of types including older-aged forests that produce acorns," Martin said. "Areas where timber is harvested provide blackberries, blueberries, sassafras berries and many other foods including insects or rodents, all of which are attractive black bear foods.

One of the bear strongholds in the state is the Shenandoah National Park (SNP) in Greene and Madison counties. No hunting is allowed in the park, but bear hunters have high rates of success on land bordering the park. Most of this land is private; the only public hunting area bordering any part is the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area.

Generally, if mast production is low, bears will travel from the SNP in search of food. These bears are often attracted to corn fields and orchards, or

bird feeders and trashcans on private property.

A healthy population of bears exists in and around the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge area, too. This is a component of a large bear population in eastern North Carolina.

"Bear hunting is permitted in the cities of Chesapeake, Suffolk and Virginia Beach on private land near, but not in, the swamp refuge at this time," Martin explained.

Dogs are allowed on private land, national forests and VDGIF land during the bear-hound season.

Considering Virginia's steadily increasing bear population and the newly penned regulations, the 2003-2004 bear season should be one to remember.

Bag limits for black bears are one per license year per person, weighing at least 100 pounds live or 75 pounds dressed. Females with cubs cannot be harvested. Baiting (hunting over a food source) is not legal in Virginia. Furthermore, it's unlawful to train, chase or hunt any wild animal with dogs from a baited site.

Dogs are not allowed in conjunction with bowhunting. Bows must be capable of propelling broadheads at least 125 yards. Hunting with dogs is not allowed during the general firearms deer season in counties west of the Blue Ridge and in the counties of Nelson (west of Route 151), Amherst (west of Route 29), Campbell and Pittsylvania, termed the "dog line." A new statewide archery bear season runs from Oct. 11 through Nov. 8.

A special bear muzzleloader season runs from Tuesday, Nov. 11 through Friday, Nov. 14, 2003 in certain counties.

Refer to the redesigned Hunting & Trapping in Virginia digest for 2003-2004 for specifics on these and the general firearms season for bears. Visit VDGIF's Web site at for additional information and current events on Virginia's black bears.

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