Virginia's Bear Hunting Prospects

Virginia's Bear Hunting Prospects

On the heels of Virginia's second highest bear harvest of the modern era, this fall season looks promising for Commonwealth bear hunters.

Photo by Mark Werner

For most big-game species, harvests from the previous year can aid somewhat in predicting future seasons, but if you are looking for an exact science in black bear forecasts, you have a long search ahead of you.

"A bear forecast is dependent upon weather, mast crops and other key factors that are out of anyone's control," said Bob Duncan, the wildlife division director for Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "Even so, we look at our trends -- particularly in the last few years -- and we are currently managing bears differently today than we did in past years. Part of this is trying to get our arms around the 300 bear complaints annually from landowners and other people."

The wildlife expert said it is apparent the regulation changes (a statewide archery season, for example) implemented by VDGIF affected the fate of bruin hunters in a positive light -- in terms of harvest -- but not as much as one would have expected. Certain parts of the state never had the opportunity to hunt bears with a bow before, until last season. Several counties in southwestern Virginia were opened to a two-week gun-hunting season, and a four-day muzzle-loading season was opened in more than half of the Commonwealth.

Although the 2004-2005 black bear harvest was down from the all-time record high of 2003-2004 -- where hunters bagged 1,510 black bears -- the season was still impressive with 1,130 bears checked in by hunters. This is the second-highest black bear harvest in Virginia history.

"Bear population estimates are difficult to make, but computer models are being refined as a part of recent bear research that will improve our ability to predict population levels," said Dennis Martin, the black bear project leader for VDGIF. "Harvest and other data suggest that there could be 7,000 to 9,000 bears statewide."

"There are more bears in the state than people realize and the population is strong and probably increasing in many areas," Duncan said. "We want to maintain a viable bear population in areas where bears are already present, but at the same time we don't want more in areas that are heavily populated with people. In that case, we want to stabilize the black bear population. We want to harvest enough of the surplus of bears, yet maintain a stable population at the same time.

"We compare nicely with other states in our area, such as North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Conditions in Virginia are good for black bears this season and they are out there."


"The total bear harvest included 736 males (65 percent) and 394 females (35 percent)," Martin said.

Archery hunters arrowed 205 bruins (18 percent of the total harvest), a decrease of 46 percent from the previous year's harvest of 446, he said. However, the archery kill was close to the previous 35-year average of 17 percent of the total bear harvest.

"Firearms hunters who did not hunt during the hound-hunting season killed 308 bears, representing 27 percent of the total harvest (the average is 31 percent) during the second week of the deer-gun season (first week of the bear-gun season)," Martin added. "That's a decrease of 18 percent from the previous year's harvest of 375."

Martin explained that 536 bears (47 percent of the total harvest, slightly less than the average of 51 percent) were harvested during the dog-hunting (hound) season, although hunters using hounds were not responsible for all of these; this is a decrease of 16 bears, or 3 percent, from the 552 killed the previous year. Ninety-one bears were harvested during the four-day muzzle-loading season, representing 8 percent of the total.

"Harvest west and east of the Blue Ridge totaled 917 and 213, respectively, representing 81 and 19 percent of the total harvest," Martin said. "That's a decrease of 14 percent and 52 percent from the previous year. The majority of the harvest (725 bears) came from the eight counties that contain the Shenandoah National Park. Similar to the 2003-2004 bear-hunting season, 6 percent, or 74 bears, of the statewide kill came from areas that were newly opened to bear hunting last year. The traditionally hunted areas of the mountains in western Virginia and the Dismal Swamp accounted for 94 percent of the total harvest (1,056 bears)."

As per usual, Rockingham County topped the list for bear harvest in the state. Hunters downed 147 bears in this bear-rich county.


Bears are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders, eating mostly plants in the spring, berries and insects in the summer and nuts and berries in the fall. Bears have been observed capturing live animals -- wild and domestic. Carrion is often a part of a bear's diet. Predation of livestock is not common, but cases are reported each year.

Depending on the sex and age of the bear, weather and food conditions, black bears enter their winter dens between October and January. They will not eat, drink, urinate or defecate while denning. Bears are easily aroused and may be active during warm winter days. They emerge from their dens from mid-March to early-May.


In Virginia, most bears den in large, hollow trees. Other den types include fallen trees, rock cavities, brush piles in timber cut areas and open ground nests.

The timing of bears denning is determined by food availability, length of daylight hours and weather.


Bear habitat must include food, water, cover, denning sites and diverse habitat types.

"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."

Martin said the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area -- bordering Shenandoah National Park in Greene and Madison counties -- is the only public hunting land available that borders SNP. Most hunting lands around SNP are private property, he pointed out. This area has many bears.

According to wildlife biologists, if mast production is low, bears will travel from SNP and move in search of food. These bears are often attracted to cornfields, orchards or bird feeders and trashcans on private property.

"When they travel from SNP, the success rate for archers increases," Martin said. "Therefore, if mast production is low, bow harvest usually increases."

A healthy population of bears exists in and around the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge area, too. 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; however, there is a proposal to allow bear hunting within the limits of the refuge, Duncan explained.

"One of the highest bear populations in the state is within this area," he said. "The SNP and Dismal Swamp may contain the greatest density of bears in Virginia. The habitat in both areas is great, and they provide a sanctuary for bears. The wetlands habitat of the Dismal Swamp and the crops in the area serve as a buffet for bears. Plus, the bears are protected in this area -- at least for now."

The outlook for 2004-2005 is very, very promising, Duncan said. He believes bear hunters have a lot to be excited about this season. Pay your dues, scout the areas and hunt hard, and this year could be one for you to reminisce for years to come.


The bag limit for black bears is 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, nor is any feeding of bears. Furthermore, it's unlawful to train, chase or hunt any wild animal with dogs from a baited site. Dogs are allowed on private land, national forests and VDGIF land during the bear-hound season in those counties where hound hunting is permitted. Archers can use longbow, recurve and compound bows only. As this article goes to press, Virginia is considering regulations that would legalize crossbows for hunting. Currently, only disabled hunters can use crossbows. Please consult the regulations before hunting. 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." The statewide archery bear season runs from Saturday, Oct. 8, 2005 through Saturday, Nov. 12, 2005. A special bear muzzleloader season runs from Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2005 through Friday, Nov. 18, 2005, in certain counties. The regular bear season (general firearms) lasts from Monday, Nov. 28, 2005 through Saturday, Jan. 7, 2006. There is an incremental two-week season in certain counties also, that starts Monday, Dec. 5, 2005 through Saturday, Dec. 17, 2005. In Chesapeake, Suffolk and Virginia Beach, the season stretches from Monday, Nov. 7, 2005 through Saturday, Jan. 7, 2006. For questions concerning hunting regulations, bag limits or any other hunting-related inquiries, contact VDGIF at (804) 367-1000, or go online at A current copy of the Hunting & Trapping in Virginia booklet is available free of charge and should be given to you when you purchase your license.

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