Virginia's Best Bear Hunting

Although last year's harvest was down slightly, the black bear population in Virginia continues to rise, making this season look very promising for bear hunters.

Although Virginia's 2001-02 black bear harvest was "off" from the previous year's record of 1,000 individuals, the good news is that the state's black bear population is still increasing at a 6 percent annual rate.

The slight decrease in the harvest last year simply means those bears are still in the woods. To figure out where they are, we'll take a look at what last year's harvest and population statistics tell us.

During the 2001-02 hunting season, hunters harvested 874 black bears, representing a 12.6 percent decrease from the previous year. The final tally: 554 males, or 63.4 percent, and 320 females, or 36.6 percent. As in previous years, the bulk of this harvest occurred west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, although this region suffered a 19 percent decrease in harvest. Hunters bagged 617 bears here in 2001, down from 762 the previous year.

However, an upturn in black bear harvest occurred in the eastern counties of the Commonwealth. Harvest here jumped from 227 to 257, representing an 11.7 percent increase.

Archers had an outstanding season, arrowing 206 bears last year compared to the previous year's mark of 134. That represents a staggering 53.7 percent increase.

During the gun season, which overlaps the second week of the two-week deer season, a decrease of 27.7 percent occurred as hunters downed 211 bears, compared to 292 during the 2000-01 season. Harvest was also down during the dog (hound) season: 457 bears were bagged, but harvest fell 13.6 percent from the 529 individuals that were killed during the previous year.

Photo by Michael H. Francis

The top 10 counties for black bear harvest across Virginia during 2001-02 were Rockingham, 107; Augusta, 98; Alleghany, 61; Page, 60; Albemarle, 55; Madison, 51; Nelson, 47; Highland, 43; Rappahannock, 37; Bath, 32.

Bob Duncan, director of the Wildlife Division of the VDGIF, said, "Most of the bears examined during last year's hunting season, as part of the Cooperative Alleghany Bear Study, were in good-to-excellent condition again." Cub production, he says, was rated as good during the previous three years.

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

Mild weather last year during the hunting season, coupled with available food, contributed to a late den entry for most bears in the fall, although hunters reported many bears had denned before the last two weeks of the hound-hunting season.

The timing of bears entering their dens is two-fold: The weather and mast crop heavily influence when they curl up in bed to catch up on shuteye. Virginia has the longest-running and most comprehensive mast surveys in the country. As a whole, last year's oak mast production was rated as good-to-excellent.

Other mast-producing species weren't rated as high. Wild grape, dogwood, hickory, black gum, cherry and autumn olive were all reported as being fair-to-good.

Virginia's own Dave Steffen was the recipient of the 2001 Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Directors' Award as Wildlife Biologist of the Year for his involvement in bear, turkey and ruffed grouse management.

"Our CABS project and our relationship with Virginia Tech have been very instrumental in our understanding population dynamics of bears and how we manage them in the future," Steffen said.

"Virginia has a high density of bears, and our cooperative study with Tech indicates two bears per square mile in the study areas, which is quite high," he added. "This is a bit of a good-news/bad-news situation because an increasing bear population can lead to nuisance complaints, particularly if you're a corn farmer, orchardist or beekeeper near areas with a dense bear population."

A high base population helps black bear numbers remain stable despite the species' low reproduction rate. Bears can live a long time, but females usually don't breed until they're 3 years old - and even then, only every other year - with two cubs per litter typically the result.

"Bears have the second-lowest reproductive rate of any North American land mammal, next to the musk ox," Steffen said, "so we know the population can't explode such as white-tailed deer in any single year."

Denny Martin, VDGIF's black-bear project leader, applauds the finalized Black Bear Management Plan. This plan will help guide the VDGIF and bear hunters into the future and serve as a roadmap to keep population growth and harvest at acceptable levels.

The VDGIF adopted the Black Bear Management Plan in March of this year. This collaborative effort, which consists of a 17-member citizen committee composed of conservationists, bear hunters, refuge and U.S. Forest Service personnel, beekeepers, farmers and orchardists, was created to help the VDGIF manage Virginia's bear population by setting broad bear management goals. The final plan calls for most of Virginia's bear population to be stabilized at their current levels. However, a 15-county area in the south-central Piedmont and an 18-county area in the southwest mountains are earmarked for an increase in population.

Fewer people and less development equal more bears. Low human populations and an ample food supply for bears are two reasons the area west of the Blue Ridge is so appealing to bears - and to hunters.

Good habitat provides bears with diverse food sources, including older-aged forests that produce acorns. Areas where timber is harvested provide blackberries, blueberries, sassafras berries and many other foods, including insects or rodents.

Martin indicates that, from 1994 through 2001, the CABS project staff trapped 818 individual black bears, more than 1,600 times. Many of these bears, particularly females, were fitted with radio collars, were marked with tattoos and ear tags and were measured. Those fitted with transmitters allow VDGIF staff to visit dens and obtain very important cub and yearling survival information and seasonal movement data.

"Gun hunters will harvest about one-half of the bears during the bear-hound season," Martin said. "Gun hunters who harvest bears during the second week of the two-week western deer season will account for about one-third of the total harvest."

Martin says the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area - bordering Shenandoah National Park (SNP) in Greene and Madison counties - is the only public hunting land available that borders the SNP. Most hunting lands around SNP are private property. However, archery hunters often are permitted to hunt these private lands.

Martin says bowhunters have averaged 15 percent of the annual bear harvest since 1969. That's indicative of a state's embracing archery hunting.

He says if mast production is low, bears will travel from SNP and move in search of food. These bears are often attracted to corn fields, orchards, bird feeders and trashcans on private property.

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

According to Martin and residents in the area, a decent population of bears exists in and around the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge area, too. This is a component of a much larger bear population in eastern North Carolina.

"Bear hunting is permitted in the cities of Chesapeake and Suffolk on private land near, but not in, the swamp refuge," Martin explained. Dogs are allowed on private land or, during the bear-hound season, on national forest land.

Martin estimates Virginia's black bear population to be between 4,000 and 6,000, but he stresses that this is only an estimate. Biologists can't exactly distribute a census form for the bears to fill out with a No. 2 pencil.

"We see harvest rates as one good indicator of population density, but there's more to it than that. These estimates are likely to change as the CABS project progresses," he added.

Considering Virginia's bear population, the collaborative effort among those involved in the management plan and the available areas to hunt should make your heart race with anticipation of downing a black bear during the 2002-03 season.

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