As the number of bears in Virginia swells, so do the number of encounters sportsmen have with them. This may well be a banner year for bruin hunters in Virginia. (November 2007)
Photo by Mark S. Werner.
Last autumn, as is true every year, I receive calls from Virginia sportsmen who have been fortunate or skilled enough to kill a big-game animal. In the past, the vast majority of those calls have been from deer hunters, with the occasional call from a turkey hunter who has managed to tag a fall longbeard (a major accomplishment, of course). But this past year, two of the calls came from bear hunters who were absolutely euphoric over their encounters with the state's largest big-game animal.
One of those individuals was Lynn Blankenship, a 49-year-old electronics technician from Troutville. This past Oct. 14, Blankenship experienced a day he will never forget — but actually, the story begins on a Saturday in October of 2004. On that day, Blankenship was afield on a Roanoke County wood lot that borders the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.
"I've been a hunter for 38 years and only twice have I seen a bear while I've been hunting," Blankenship recalled. "The first time was on that day in 2004 when I saw a pretty decent bear come by my bow stand at 15 yards. I couldn't remember whether bear season was in or not, so I let the bear walk. When I went back to camp and checked the regulations, I learned that bear season was in and that I had just passed on a shot at a bear standing broadside to me. That goof on my part has weighed on my mind ever since."
Flash forward two years and Blankenship is aloft in the same wood lot and hoping that a deer will meander past his stand. With him is good friend Kevin Taylor of Roanoke. The two sportsmen have positioned stands on opposite sides of a thicket, Blankenship on the upper side, Taylor on the lower.
Unknown to Blankenship, Taylor experienced a rendezvous with a massive bruin on his way to the latter's tree stand. Some 20 minutes before shooting light, Taylor and the animal blundered across each other and had a standoff at just 10 yards. The human froze and twice the bear reared on its hind legs in an attempt to make some sense of what kind of creature is on the same path it is on and likewise standing on hind legs. Finally, the Homo sapiens picked up a stick and hurled it at the Ursus americanus, hitting the bear in the side. Thereupon the animal scudded away up the hillside in the general direction of Blankenship's position. The rosy fingers of dawn begin to creep across the sky.
"I was in my tree stand well before Kevin was in his, so I had no idea what had been going on below me," Blankenship remembered. "I hear something walking behind me and I think that a deer is on its way. I peek around the tree and see only the hindquarters of a bear. The animal keeps coming, moves around to the other side of the tree, and then stops broadside at 32 yards.
"I release an arrow and hear it make a good, solid hit. Then I just go to pieces, shaking and trembling. The bear runs up the hillside above me, stops for a minute, and then continues on out of sight. I climb down from the stand, go to where I hit the bear, and there's blood just everywhere."
One way or the other, Blankenship knew that he would need help either trailing or hauling out the bruin, so he headed for Taylor's stand where his buddy was in the process of calling a flock of turkeys toward him. Lynn's arrival ended his friend's chance of arrowing a turkey and Taylor calmly asked a question.
"I know what you've just done, you've just shot a big bear, haven't you?"
The duo then went to where the bear was arrowed and the trail was very easy to follow. As the trail continued to develop, however, the blood became less and less — but the bear's gait was obviously labored as the animal's progress (as evidenced by the upturned leaves) became ever easier to follow.
At last, the two friends came to where just a single drop of blood dappled the forest duff. They scanned the surrounding mountainside, and, there, just 10 yards away in a mountain laurel copse laid the dead animal — which led to the classic "good news, bad news" scenario. Lynn Blankenship had just killed a trophy bruin, but how does one haul out of the woods a creature that appears to weigh more than a quarter of a ton?
"Both hunters and the general public are definitely having more sightings and that trend is upward," he said. "In some of our counties where bears can be hunted, the kill is between two and three bears per square mile, which is just a phenomenal figure and really has gotten people's attention. Simply, there are a lot of bears in the state and the population is robust."
The biologist added that as is true with deer and turkeys, the bear harvest is influenced by mast conditions.
"The bow kill is driven by poor mast," Steffen said. "Generally, archers are much more successful when the bears are not spread out because the mast is concentrated in just a few areas. On the other hand, when there is an abundance of mast, bowhunting success rates typically go down because the animals are more scattered. During those years, the success of gun hunters usually increases because the bears stay out longer into the winter and don't den up as soon.
"The fact that crossbows accounted for 38 percent of the bow harvest is very interesting. The VDGIF anticipated this increase, but is that increase because the crossbow is a more effective type of bow and theoretically has a longer range? Or is it because more hunters are in the woods now because the crossbow is legal?"
Steffen stated that Virginia's black bear population continues to be concentrated in three areas. The eight counties surrounding Shenandoah National Park produced 41 percent (662) of the total kill. Such counties as Page, Madison, Shenandoah, Rockingham, Warren and Greene especially host large populations.
A second concentration is in the western part of the Old Dominion, especially from Highland, Augusta and Albemarle counties southward to Bland, Giles and Craig. Steffen noted that Alleghany County in particular is experiencing an upsurge.
The third area is the Dismal Swamp region of Tidewater. Steffen emphasized that a recent very positive development has been the VDGIF adding the 3,800-acre tract known as the Cavalier Property to its wildlife management area lineup. The tract lies just 2.5 miles east of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and will serve to give bears and other wildlife a green corridor.
"Now that land wo
n't end up in development," Steffen said. "And the new WMA will protect some critical bear habitat in an area of the state where development could eventually isolate the bear population. It is good especially in Tidewater for the state to add public land. Bears need large contiguous areas of forested habitat. And the public needs that land for recreation."
Steffen said that the VDGIF is opposed to more land in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest receiving the wilderness designation.
"I enjoy hunting in the national forest and value the fact that wilderness areas exist," he explained. "But we need a balance between wilderness and areas where forest management can take place. Creatures from bears to songbirds benefit from the existence of early successional habitat and also from its creation. Adding more wilderness areas where timber cutting and other management activities are not permitted takes away from that balance."
With Virginia's bear population increasing, VDGIF staff held meetings this year to, among other things, assist the public concerning how to prevent bears from damaging private property. Ironically, on the very day I called Dave Steffen to interview him for this story, a bear had visited the Botetourt County property where my family lives. The bruin had "uprooted" our compost bin, dumped out the contents, and strewn them about our back yard.
"Bears tend to visit a number of places, but especially those that have backyard gardens, compost bins, garbage cans, bird feeders, barbecue pits and pet feeding stations," Steffen said. "We recommend that homeowners run electrified fences around such things as gardens and compost bins and that no food be left overnight in pet food bowls. Securing garbage cans and cleaning out grease from barbecue pits are wise precautions, as well."
ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL ARCHER
Mark Hepler, a 29-year-old computer technician from Allegany County, is another bowhunter that contacted me last autumn and knows the thrill of a black bear coming upon him.
Hepler, who like Blankenship had never killed a bruin until this past autumn, first became aware that these creatures were using the Alleghany County wood lot where he bowhunts when a trail camera captured the image of an animal. Hepler has always "wanted a rug," so upon viewing the image became hopeful that the creature would come by his tree stand. Still, his focus was mostly deer this past Oct. 16.
"I was bowhunting a place where I normally see 15 to 20 deer over the course of a sitting, but the day was so windy that I only saw several does," Hepler recollected. "As the day wore on, the wind became worse and worse. I had started out on the top of a ridge, but the gusts were so bad that I moved my stand into a hollow.
"But late in the day, even the hollow became very windy. When a strong gust came through about a half hour before the end of shooting light and caused a bough to come crashing down about 30 yards away, I knew it was time to climb down and head for home."
Nevertheless, as is true with many hunters, Hepler believes that as long as shooting light exists, so does hope. So, he slowly still-hunted his way back to his truck. Then right before dusk, he spotted a huge ebony spot moving up the same logging road that the human was moving down. When Helper peered through his binoculars, he confirmed the big-game animal's identity.
"I snuck up to a big, white oak and hid behind it," Hepler said. "I then peeked around one side. The bear kept coming, but then he stopped to scratch his rump on a tree. I then drew back, and when the bear came to within about 30 yards of me, I let the arrow fly.
"The bear ran directly away from me into a clearcut. I heard a crash about 75 yards away, but I wasn't about to go after him into that cut by myself."
Hepler next sought out his cousin, Cameron Barner, also of Alleghany County. An hour or so later, the two returned to the vicinity of the hit and quickly found an easy-to-follow blood trail. Not long afterward, Barner ventured upon the dead animal.
Hepler then drove his truck to a logging road that lies only 50 yards from where the bear was found. Amazingly, the two men endured 45 minutes of backbreaking labor just to drag the beast to the vehicle. Hepler's father joined the operation, and the three men took an hour and 45 minutes to load the bear. Understandable in that the black bear's live weight was 425 pounds.
For more information on bear hunting in the state, contact the Virginia Bear Hunters Association at www.virginiabearhunters.org.