Virginia's Bear Hunting Prospects

Virginia's Bear Hunting Prospects

Once again, the black bear hunting season appears promising, following the all-time record harvest of 2003-2004. Here's where hunters are having the most success.

Photo by Michael H. Francis

By Marc N. McGlade

Whether they tote a bow, smokepole or high-powered rifle into Virginia's woods, hunters who seek black bears should be in for a banner year this fall. Why? Because the 2003-2004 hunting season was spectacular. While last year's results do not with certainty predict the future, the prospects are extremely promising.

First the caveat: Forecasting a hunting season is just an invitation to be wrong. The bear harvest in Virginia depends upon weather, mast crops and other key factors that are out of anyone's control. Since the weather is anything but predictable - especially in Virginia - suffice it to say the information below is the wildlife biologists' best-educated estimate.

It's apparent that the regulation changes (a statewide archery season, for example) implemented by Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries helped to generate an increased harvest. The 2003-2004 bear-hunting season was a record. An all-time high of 1,510 black bears were reported killed by hunters. This harvest represents a mind-boggling increase of 62 percent from the previous harvest of 932, and a 51 percent increase from the previous high of 1,000 bruins in 2000-2001.

Regulation changes weren't the only reason for the record harvest, however.

"Even without any changes to the regulations (if VDGIF didn't apply statewide regulation changes), we would have had a record kill," said VDGIF wildlife division chief Bob Duncan. "That says an incredible amount about the bear population in Virginia."

Oddly enough, the new counties open to bear hunting last year contributed only 141 bears to the harvest, so even subtracting that, Virginia would still have a new record.

Duncan noted that, "Our black bear management plan called to stabilize the bear population across the state. We had more than 300 complaints on bears last year alone, which indicates the population is increasing."

Duncan said VDGIF is aiming for the cultural carrying capacity of the bears in Virginia. Essentially, the cultural carrying capacity is the population of bears that people are willing to accept. Bears are fairly adaptable when it comes to food sources, and thus the cultural carrying capacity of a state like Virginia is lower than the "habitat" capacity.

"Some citizens don't want to see more bears, so we have to address that too," he said. "The recovery of the forest in Virginia has aided to the bear population. Conditions have improved over time to favor the bears. Our bear hunting seasons and strategies over time have proved to be a winning combination to build the population back to where it is today. Our comfort level is high with what we're doing to manage the bear resource in the state. We're taking proactive steps to stabilize bear numbers in Virginia and provide hunters with the best opportunities possible."


"The total included 904 males, 599 females and 7 of unknown sex," said Denny Martin, VDGIF's black bear project leader. "Harvests west and east of the Blue Ridge totaled 1,067 and 443, an increase of 41 percent and 46.7 percent, respectively."

Bowhunters arrowed 446 bears (29.5 percent of total harvest), up from the previous year's harvest of 244. Gun hunters killed 375 bears during the second week of deer-gun season (first week of bear-gun season), an increase of 41.5 percent from the previous year's harvest of 265. A total of 552 bears were harvested during the dog-hunting (hound) season. One hundred forty-one bears were bagged in newly opened hunting counties or portions of counties, and 137 bears, representing 9.1 percent of the total harvest, were taken during the new four-day muzzleloading season. Only 15 bears were harvested during the muzzleloading season in newly opened counties.

"The harvest of bears in the eight counties which contain the Shenandoah National Park increased from 503 to 722," Martin said. "It's important to note that 77 percent and 91 percent of the bears harvested in Rockingham and Augusta counties, respectively, are probably not associated with SNP bear populations."

Once again, Rockingham County topped the list for bear harvest in the state. In this bear-rich county, 176 bears found their way into hunters' sights.


Black bears are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders. According to wildlife biologists, more than 75 percent of the annual black bear diet consists of vegetative matter. Bears consume a wide variety of foods, including berries and fruits (soft mast), nuts and acorns (hard mast), grasses and forbs, insects and beetles, agricultural crops, carrion and occasionally wild and domestic animals.

Although bears can kill livestock, rabbits, mice, squirrels, groundhogs and deer fawns, they are more likely to feed on vegetation.

It's starting to sound like a broken record, but last year - once again - hunters reported seeing more bears and bear sign than they had in previous years, according to Duncan.

The timing of bears entering their dens is two-fold: Food availability and weather dictate when bears will den up for the winter.

"Many bears will den in hollow-standing trees, logs, dug-out areas underneath a fallen tree or in a brushpile that's associated with timber harvests," Martin said.


"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 SNP in Greene and Madison counties - is the only public hunting land available that borders SNP. Most hunting lands around SNP are private property, he points out. However, archery hunters often are permitted to hunt these private lands.

Generally, if mast production is low, bears will travel from SNP, moving in search of food. These bears are often attracted to corn fields, 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 i


A healthy population of bears exists in and around the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge area, too. This is a component of a large bear population in eastern North Carolina.

"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," Martin explained.

Black bears can attain speeds of 30 mph, and they are excellent tree climbers and swimmers. Viewing a swimming bear is not a rare sight in the Great Dismal Swamp region of Tidewater.

Dogs are allowed on private land, national forests and VDGIF land during the bear-hound season.

"The outlook for 2004-2005 is very, very promising," Duncan said. "I think bear hunters have a lot to be excited about, whether it's still-hunting, archery, muzzleloader or general firearms."

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