Virginia's Best Bear Hunting

Virginia's Best Bear Hunting

Virginia's bear population is increasing in many areas of the state. Is a bear rug in your future? (November 2008).

Brit Stoudenmire of Pearisburg with a Giles County bear that he killed last fall during the deer muzzleloading season. A significant minority of the bears killed in Virginia are taken by deer hunters, because deer and bear seasons overlap.
Photo courtesy of Britt Stoudenmire.

Infrequently have I seen anything in the hunting and fishing world to match the increasing interest that many Virginia outdoorsmen are showing about black bears. Perhaps, that is because for many decades, bears were seldom seen. Now bruins appear everywhere from the backcountry of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest to suburban back yards.

The top 10 counties (with harvest in parentheses) were Rockingham (159), Page (82), Albemarle (78), Rockbridge (78), Augusta (77), Madison (76), Shenandoah (72), Botetourt (66), Highland (66) and Nelson (59).

Consider this account from fishing guide Britt Stoudenmire, who operates Canoe the New Outfitters in Pearisburg.

"After a snowstorm, I was deer hunting during the late muzzleloading season in 2007 when I first noticed this bear's tracks," he recalled. "The bear was utilizing a densely overgrown power line in the Jefferson National Forest and was moving both up and down the power line. I also noticed a number of deer tracks in the area, so the next time in the woods, I set up my climbing stand adjacent to the power line on a semi-open oak knob.

"Deer began frequenting the area almost immediately, but it was antlered-deer-only season, and I was hunting a particular buck whose sign I had followed most of the season. Late in the evening, I noticed movement coming directly downwind from the power line behind me. As I turned, I realized it was the bear whose sign I had seen.

"As I gradually repositioned the gun, the bear either smelled or saw me and wheeled immediately. The bear was moving away from me at about 75 degrees and 30 yards out when I pinned the shot just in front of its hindquarter, which exited the animal just behind its front quarter, a lethal shot. The bear fell in its steps."

This was Britt's first bear, so he phoned some hunting friends, and they informed him that he would need to field dress the animal immediately, because if he did not, the thick outer fat layer of the bear would cause the meat to spoil. He field dressed the bear and exited the woods so he could find assistance in dragging the almost 200-pound live weight creature back to the vehicle. After checking in the bear and taking some pictures, Stoudenmire finished cleaning the animal. Britt and his wife, Leigh, prepared the meat for the freezer, taking about 10 cuts from the hindquarter. The couple also used a recipe they found on the Internet at www. /bear/2.php. (Continued)

"I marinated and cooked the bear strips that evening," concluded Stoudenmire. "I do not believe in killing an animal if I am not going to eat it. Contrary to many stories I have heard on bear meat, this dish was excellent."

During the 2007-08 season, hunters checked in 1,517 bruins -- 1,035 west of the Blue Ridge (WBR) and 482 east of the Blue Ridge (EBR). Of that total, the harvest breaks down this way: archery (393), muzzleloader (92) and firearms (1,032). The firearms tally was a decrease of some 10 percent from the 2006-07 total of 1,118. Hunters afield with dogs accounted for 52 percent of the firearms kill and 35 percent of the total.

Additionally, the average annual harvest has been increasing at a rate of 7.4 percent per year this decade.

The fact that the harvest is increasing comes as no surprise to Wes Hensley, who operates H&H Outdoors in the town of Buchanan (

"Bear numbers do seem to be up," Hensley said. "My group hunts on national forest land in Botetourt, Rockbridge and Bedford counties, and last year we treed about 25 animals. Of those, we killed six bears.

"We look upon letting bears go the same as trophy deer hunters look upon letting bucks under 8 points walk. If we let the females and small males go, we will have better sport in the future."

Hensley notes an increasing interest in bear hunting and emphasizes the thrill of chasing after these animals with a well-trained pack of hounds. Developing a bear dog takes a great deal of time, he stresses, from the animal developing the stamina to travel 10 or more miles in a day's time to learning not to chase deer and other creatures. Like Britt Stoudenmire, Hensley maintains that bear meat is quite tasty and "much better than pork if cooked right."

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) research biologist supervisor Dave Steffen was not surprised to learn that Hensley and his group let a number of bears walk last year.

"I think the state's bear hunters can take some of the credit for Virginia's bear numbers rising in many areas," he told me. "Many of the clubs and groups let some or most of their bears walk. I've heard of some groups that treed as many as 40 bears and let all but three of them go. Many of the clubs are also selecting to shoot only the older males."

Based on data from the VDGIF, Steffen estimates that the state has about 20,000 bear hunters -- that is, individuals who pursue bruins with either dogs or specifically target this big-game animal. Interestingly, data also seems to indicate that about 35 percent of the bears are killed by hound hunters specifically seeking them. The other 65 percent of the checked animals were killed either by hunters pursuing bears and not using dogs to do so or by hunters who opportunistically killed a bruin while hunting, for example, for deer.

Another tidbit of information is that the VDGIF has been conducting information sessions in "bear country." These sessions, often initiated by local game wardens and with VDGIF biologists in attendance, are designed to educate the public about how to avoid attracting bears to their properties. Remember that it is illegal to feed or bait bears in Virginia.

"Here's how a typical scenario works," said Steffen. "A suburbanite sees a bear at her bird feeder and thinks that's cute. Then that person starts seeing how close she can attract the bear to her window and begins placing food closer and closer to the house. The next thing she knows that bear is sticking its nose up against the back door, and that bear isn't so cute anymore. That's when the VDGIF is called in and told that we need to do something about this 'problem' bear.

"At this point, we don't have any great options on how to deal with the bear. Sometimes those bears have to be destroyed because homeowners have conditioned the animals to handouts.

"We generally are not relocating animals in wilderness areas anymore because those areas now have plenty of bears. And relocating a bear to some rural area is not good because that's just pawning a problem animal off on someone else and then that other landowner has a problem bear."

Steffen said that in some parts of the Old Dominion, the VDGIF wants to stabilize the population and in others increase it. The biologist emphasized that often the question is not whether or not the land in question can carry additional bears but whether or not the human population can culturally stand for more bears to be present. Beekeepers, orchard growers and agricultural concerns, as well as suburbanites, can quickly reach their tolerance level well before bears have reached a biological overpopulation above what the habitat itself can support.

The VDGIF has determined that its objective is to stabilize the population in the following areas: Shenandoah Valley (specifically Botetourt County north), Northwestern Mountain, Dismal Swamp area, Northern Piedmont, Southwest Piedmont and the Alleghany/Blue Ridge corridor.

Areas where the population can increase include the Southwest and Southside (such as the counties of Mecklenburg, Lunenburg and Brunswick). During the past four years, VDGIF personnel have documented bears appearing in 85 of the state's 98 cities and counties.

Steffen adds that the above information reflects a growing population, based on data from harvests and other indices. He said that Rockingham is a good example of a county that has a bear population that is heavily hunted and yet maintains a solid contingent of two to three bears per square mile. There is definitely no need for the population there to grow.

For this fall, the bear archery season began on Oct. 11 and the muzzleloader on Nov. 11. Firearms opening dates and season lengths vary depending on county. See the hunting digest for more information or the department's Web site at www.dgif.€‚€‚€‚

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