Bears are thriving in many areas across Virginia.
During the 2016-17 season, Virginia hunters brought 2,428 bears to check stations, topping the 2015-16 tally of 2,357 by 3 percent.
In fact, last season was a new state record for Virginia bear hunting — barely. During the 2014-15 season, which was the previous record, hunters killed five fewer bears. A difference of five bears is not statistically significant, but what is significant is that the annual kill has now surpassed 2,000 bears every year since 2008.
Five counties exceeded or met the 100 mark (with harvest in parentheses): Rockingham (168), Augusta (149), Alleghany (119), Rockbridge (118), and Highland (100). Rounding out the top 10 were Nelson (81), Botetourt (78), Giles (78), Tazewell (75) and Bath (72).
One of the harvest statistics that really leap is the archery kill of 774. That is an amazing number of these big game animals killed with a primitive weapon. Also of note is that muzzleloader users tallied 364, general firearms folks took 1,213, and hound hunters came in with 884.
Buchanan’s Richard Sprinkle, president of the Virginia Bear Hunters Association (VBHA), is the new leader of the organization, replacing David Steger, who remains as an advisory director. He offers this overview of the season and other matters.
“Generally, the VBHA was pleased with last year’s season, although we do have some concerns about the harvest,” he said. “For example, Bedford County [which had a harvest of 38] offered very good hunting in some areas of the county, while in other parts, very good hunters with quality dogs struggled to see bears.”
Another concern, continues Sprinkle, were new proposals striving to decrease bear numbers by allowing more animals to be killed. All in all, the proposals include decreasing the population by 25 percent in Roanoke County, as well as in some counties with large swaths of national forest (Bath, Highland, Rockbridge, Botetourt, and Rockbridge). A 25 percent decrease is also advised in some areas of the Northern Mountains (Rockingham, Frederick, and Shenandoah), in the Northern Piedmont (Madison, Clark, Albemarle, Greene, Madison, Page, and Culpepper among others), as well as the relatively urban county of Fairfax and the nearby one of Stafford. In other counties and regions, the reduction of numbers is stated as needing to be either 12 or 13 percent.
Sprinkle says that the position of the VBHA is that the Commonwealth hosts a stable and healthy population of black bears, not one that is expanding out of control. These population reduction proposals were also not made public and thus open to discussion, another concern of the organization.
The VBHA, the president continues, is also concerned about the number of bear kill permits that are being distributed. Sprinkle emphasizes that many of the organization’s members are farmers or rural landowners themselves and fully realize the damage that bruins can do to a cornfield or other agricultural concern. They also understand that in situations such as those that these permits can many times be fully justified.
However, the VBHA also believes that “more of a people problem than a bear problem” exists in some cases of bear-human conflict.
“The black bear should not be punished when people leave their bird feeders out even when these animals continually visit them,” he said. “Bears also shouldn’t be penalized when people put their trash out overnight, leave their grills or dog and cat food out overnight, don’t secure their chicken runs or compost bins, or don’t put electric fencing around their bee hives. Of course in situations like those, bears will visit these backyards and cause a mess. That’s just a bear being a bear. Again, we see that as a need to educate the public rather than punish the bears by having kill permits issued.”
To echo what Sprinkle said, on the rural Botetourt County road that I live on, trash pickup comes on Fridays. Many of my neighbors continue to put their trash cans out on Thursday afternoons, and on Friday mornings, it’s easy to spot the cans where bears have visited them overnight. I have told many of my neighbors that the wise choice is to wait until Friday morning before putting out their refuse, but they continue to not do so. As Sprinkle comments, this is a people problem, not a bear one.
Last year was the second one where the bear tag was removed from the previous big game license that had deer, turkeys, and bears all on it. The VBHA president weighs in on that topic as well.
“We are absolutely pleased with that change,” says Sprinkle. “The change did not negatively affect the harvest as many people claimed it would. And what’s more, the license change has resulted in the game department gaining approximately 1.5 million dollars off license sales. The department receives no money from the state’s general fund, so all sportsmen will benefit from that extra income.”
Last year, 77 bears were killed during the Youth and Apprentice Hunter weekend hunt. Of that number, 63 were taken behind hounds. Sprinkle says that the VBHA has some concern about the regulations set for this season as well. One of them is that the organization cannot use their dogs to hunt on Sundays and also that members and the general public cannot go hunting on public land on Sundays.
“Statistically, 90 percent or more of state deer hunters hunt on private land and 10 percent go to public land,” he says. “But for bear hunters, the figures are just reversed — 90 percent of us will use the national forest or WMAs to do most of our hunting, while only about 10 percent of bear hunters rely on private land. In much of the state, there are simply too many small acreage properties to make going to them worthwhile.”
The need for wide open spaces is one of the reasons why the 1.8 million George Washington and Jefferson National Forest is such an important resource for bear hunters. However, VBHA members are also quite troubled about the lack of habitat work being carried out in the GWJNF.
“We would like to see more timber management taking place on the national forest,” said Sprinkle. “The lack of age diversity in the national forest’s timber stands is not good for bears, deer, and turkeys and not good for ruffed grouse and many species of songbirds. More clear cuts, timber harvesting and thinning, along with prescribed burns, would rejuvenate the national forest.”
For nearly 30 years now, continues Sprinkle, there has been very little timber management on the national forest as preservationist groups have blocked many timber sales. As the forests have aged, hard mast production, such as from oaks, has declined. The good news is that more members of the general public seem to be becoming aware of the fact that more timber management means a healthier forest and more robust wildlife populations.
“With more timber management, soft mast production would increase as well,” said Sprinkle. “The soft mast would many times come out before the acorns matured and help keep the bears in the national forest and out of trouble with private landowners and farmers with corn and other agricultural efforts.”
Sprinkle says that a number of other wildlife management areas offer quality bear hunting. In the greater Roanoke-Salem-Lynchburg area, two of the ones that the VDHA president says are popular are the Havens and Short Hills WMAs. The 7,190-acre Havens, which lies in Roanoke County, is much like the nearby GWJNF in that both contain steep mountainsides, deep coves, heavily wooded territory, and lots of backcountry.
The nearby Short Hills WMA in Botetourt and Rockbridge counties also features much of this same type of topography. I visited this 3,482-acre public land when it first opened a few years ago. However, a major difference is that it also contains about 750 acres of open land that was once farmed. This diversity makes Short Hills somewhat unique among our state’s mountain WMAs and adds greatly to its appeal.
Another bruin hot spot lies in Tidewater in the form of the 3,800-acre Cavalier WMA. Dog hunting and centerfire rifles are not allowed in this far southeastern public land, making it an especially appealing destination for archers. Cavalier features an intriguing mix of lowland forests, swampy topography, and regenerating timber cuts. Bear populations are mostly concentrated in the western mountains, the western edge of the Piedmont, the Shenandoah Valley, and in this part of Tidewater.
Jaime Sajecki, the black bear project leader for the Virginia Game Department, offers this 2017-18 forecast.
“Since 2008, we have had harvests that exceeded 2000 bears and we expect that this year will not be any different,” she said. “For two years we have had the ability to see how many people are interested specifically in bear hunting through purchases of the bear license. There is a lot of interest — for the two previous hunting seasons we have sold over 31,000 bear licenses. By now, it should be apparent that the frequently expressed misconceptions regarding reduced hunter participation and impacts to the bear population with the addition of a bear license were just that, misconceptions.”
Of course, Sajecki is very familiar with the proposal designed to decrease bear numbers as well as the variety of viewpoints on that suggestion.
“Recovering a bear population is such a different experience than what happens when you have finally reached your population objectives,” she said. “Both are obviously challenging, but the issues vary so much when you are trying to grow a population versus what managers need to do once that population is recovered.
“No matter what the outcome of this regulatory process is, we have identified issues that we feel we need to make a better point of addressing/clarifying with the public (hunting and non-hunting alike). These are common impressions we have heard quite often, especially over the last few months. For example, the ‘bar stool science’ contention that reducing bear populations by 14 to 25 percent would somehow benefit deer populations in certain areas of the state.
“Another example is this idea that bear hunters are only interested in killing or about a trophy with no other positive values of bears. In both examples, I believe that we have our work cut out for us in making sure that Virginians are aware of the reality associated with both these mistaken ideas.”
The biologist has a number of goals for the future. Ultimately, she says, all the goals add up to the objective of making sure that we always have a valued place for bears in Virginia. Also, that the public and habitat will support this amazing animal is an important part of our ecosystem and a part of being a Virginian. For this to happen, Sajecki maintains that people have to learn about the wildlife they share their existence with. A little bit of education and personal responsibility is all it takes to coexist with bears.
“From my perspective, accomplishing all of this relies not just on bear biologists but on all people with positive values and knowledge about bears,” she said. “Bear hunters play a huge role in this since they value and understand bears just as much as those who manage them professionally do. The similarities in values between the bear hunting community and the non-hunting, wildlife-watching community amaze me. While the separate groups may not know it, they are allies in their desires to achieve the same goals…which also happen to match our biologists’ goals.”
Sajecki emphasizes that wildlife management is more about people management than actual wildlife management. She says that concerning managing bears in Virginia (while difficult at times) it is nowhere near as complex as managing human behavior.
Finally, the biologist states that while the densest bear populations are in the western and southeastern parts of the state, there are opportunities for hunter success just about anywhere in Virginia. Indeed, bruin hunting opportunities are abundant as this may well be the golden age of bear hunting in the Old Dominion.