Unlike the economy, bear hunting in our state continues to sizzle during the fall and winter seasons. Read on for the latest. (October 2009)
The Mountain State's meteoric black bear population expansion continues to dominate this first decade of the New Millennium. While turkeys and deer have had their restoration turns in time, this new growth unquestionably belongs to the bruins.
In testament, West Virginia hunters harvested a record 2,069 black bears during the combined 2008 archery and firearms seasons, according to Chris Ryan, Black Bear Project leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR). The harvest data for the combined seasons in 2008 was 14 percent higher than the previous record of 1,804 established in 2007.
It was also the first time ever that the kill exceeded 2,000. Per Ryan, numerous factors contributed to this record bear harvest.
"West Virginia has a tremendous bear population that allows for a variety of different hunting opportunities. The expansion and increase in the bear population has led to the extension of hunting seasons designed to keep counties in line with their management objectives."
To garner this input, I had to roust the bear expert out of seclusion while in the process of writing his doctoral dissertation on the many years of West Virginia black bear research. He goes on to state that, "With the cooperation of hunters, wildlife managers can maintain and/or adjust bear populations to desired management levels by implementing appropriate hunting regulations."
Ryan indicates the same strategy will be applied to this year's hunting opportunities. He is still awaiting the age data from teeth collected from last year's record harvest to make a full prognosis.
The first small tooth, called a premolar just behind the large canine tooth, is used to age the bear (much like a tree is aged by counting its growth rings). However, the bear tooth-aging version is a little more complex and requires the services of a lab for micro-slicing, staining and examination under a microscope.
In fact, when I queried Ryan as to how bear hunters can help with the management of their state animal, he quickly replied that more bear teeth were needed from successful hunters!
Though the tooth process is mandatory in neighboring Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, it is yet voluntary here. The mandatory bear check-in process still applies in West Virginia, and hunters generally do a good job with that long-standing rule.
Successful hunters may forget the tooth part in the excitement of the moment. Bear-hunting party members may just have to remind each other. The tooth extraction directions are plain and simple and are found in the bear section of the regulations pamphlet.
That behind us, we can at least start making some hunting plans! With a fall hunt bear population estimate of 10,000 to 12,000 bruins per Ryan, hunters can now start building up a little enthusiasm.
However, without the full advantage of that age data and in keeping with the management plan, the current setup calls for the removal of several counties from the early September gun hunt and the reduction of the overall bag limit from two bears to one. Both of these rulings were brand-new options last year. The chances for a new record this year would thus be highly unlikely because of these new restrictions.
Biologist Ryan still believes that the population is growing and that adding more counties back into the September mix is quite likely in the future. But don't fret. There will still be plenty of hunting opportunities knocking for an excellent hunt this very year.
In addition to the regulation prescriptions, the usual weather and mast conditions that can affect the harvest must not be underestimated. For example, many of the stars were lined up just right to aid and abet the hunter last year. There was enough mast to keep the bruins out and about for the December gun hunts without a brutalizing weather pattern which with poor mast could have caused early hibernation and a reduced gun kill.
And with all that, let's not forget to discuss those new-fangled September gun seasons in further detail. When the gun smoke cleared, a smashing record of 1,590 bears was bagged by the bullet. Of that total lot, an astounding 670 were taken during the new September hunts alone! Yet another 109 were taken during concurrent gun buck hunting seasons. The remaining half (811) of the gun kill came during the "traditional" December season.
Not to underestimate the contribution of the archery specific kill of 479 bruins, it was, in fact, the sixth highest on record for that hunting implement. Though archers didn't arrow their own individual category record for 2008, fully seven of the best ever bow takes have occurred in the past nine years alone!
These kinds of records are amazing by any measure. Uncommon just a generation back, bear hunting memories are now being made in bunches. Here's just such a fond memory from the record season that will forever be emblazed in the hunting annals of one successful bear hunter.
This fortunate young bowhunter was just a single example within the recipient thousands of last year's record bounty. Fifteen-year-old Daniel Coakley of Taylor County arrowed a handsome Webster County bruin. This was not only his first bear, but also his only big-game animal of any sort with a bow. Talk about getting off to a good start.
Though he had previously taken some venison with the gun, the 150-pound male bear was squarely arrowed, then went just a short and easy to follow 80 yards to recovery. Daniel's dad, Scott indicates he was even more excited than his son when he got the news via cell phone. Though dad has had several close bear calls with his bow, he has yet to arrow a bruin for himself.
Odds are good that both Daniel and his dad are likely to find future success as well, though we're sure that Dad would have never dreamed of such opportunities during his youth. It's for bounties like this that we sometimes take for granted and must give pause for thanks.
For Daniel's feat, the youngster was honored as one of three Junior Bowhunters of the Year at the annual banquet of the West Virginia Bowhunters Association (WVBA). The WVBA continues to be a major supporter of our DNR black bear season, Hunters Helping the Hungry (HHH) and Archery in the Schools programs.
The West Virginia Trophy Hunters Association and Black Bear Hunters Association should also be recognized for their contributions to this resource success in one way or another over the many years of re
storation. Former DNR Black Bear Project leader, Joe Rieffenberger along with Ryan at present are nationally recognized bear experts. But without an army of helping hands, including fellow employees and other volunteers, even these gentlemen could not have achieved the bear restoration success kudos that for the last quarter of the 20th century was once reserved for the restoration of the wild turkey. But after all, it is a new century.
Even neighboring Ohio and Kentucky attribute freshly blooming bear populations to natural expansion from their neighbor to the east, namely West Virginia. In fact, and after a 100-year hiatus, the Bluegrass State of Kentucky will feature its first (though very limited) bear hunt this year at selected ranges fairly close to our border.
Kentucky elk are apparently returning the favor along the common border at the Mountain State's famous southwestern Hatfield and McCoy feud country as they periodically drift into and make a scene in West Virginia. These are certainly some exciting times in the big-game annals of central Appalachia.
We can now get a little more specific for this year's black bear hunting proposals. For starters, however, be sure to carefully confirm your favorite hunting county (the management units) in the printed regulations pamphlet for the final approved version. The "with or without dog" hunting options, as well as the general and bear specific license requirements, can also be viewed there. Also, please remember the return to the one bear per season limit. With that in mind, here's what's proposed for 2009:
Archery bear hunting is a cinch. The season is a simple and "statewide" Oct. 17 to Nov. 21. Archers get this great seasonable autumn hunting weather and venue that likewise includes statewide concurrent archery deer hunting throughout.
They can also check out other concurrent county hunting opportunities. In certain counties and time slots, wild turkeys and boars can also be arrowed from the same tree stand.
Per DNR bear man Ryan and his fellow researchers, archery bear hunters are most successful when mast is rather limited, for example, to lots of apples and not much of anything else. This in turn tends to concentrate the bruins at that particular food source. On the other hand, when mast is abundant, a black bear can be just about anywhere and hunter success declines.
For current food conditions, look for the DNR Annual Mast Report and Hunting Outlook. This excellent source should be posted on its Web page at wvdnr.gov about the time you're reading this. Local camp mast status is best gotten by good old-fashioned legwork.
If you're still not decided on which of the 55 statewide counties to get started, last year's top five for archery were: Randolph, Nicholas, Preston, Webster and McDowell. As proof pudding to the now nicely expanded bear range, these stated five top bow counties form a straight north to south "arrow" through the geographic spine of West Virginia.
On the other hand, gun hunters generally do best when mast, such as beech, hickory and acorns are abundant and not covered by a foot of snow, especially during the traditional December season in particular. To conserve energy during poor mast and miserable weather, bears will den earlier on average and thus become less unavailable to the gun.
Of course, when you throw in the new and earlier September hunts, along with the concurrent November gun buck season hunts, the total gun hunting water gets muddied up a bit. Reason being, just a short time back, the traditional December gun hunts were the only game in town. As a result, we now need to break down this discussion by not one but three gun hunting options: September, Concurrent Gun Buck and Traditional December.
The September gun hunt counties have been reduced from 15 to four for this year. The bear populous southern county quad of Boone, Fayette, Kanawha and Raleigh remain as the holdovers slated for the week of Sept. 21 to Sept. 26.
Without the contribution of the 11 and nearly all traditional range counties to this option as was the case last year, it can be seen that another harvest the magnitude of 670 will be virtually impossible. Along with it, the potential for new gun or total record harvests are likewise not likely in the cards.
Concurrent Gun Bruin
The five concurrent gun buck/ bruin hunting counties remain the same as last year. They are the aforementioned southern September season quad of Boone, Fayette, Kanawha and Raleigh along with the northern part of the state's Monongalia County, which will host the Nov. 23 to Dec. 5 concurrent gun bruin option.
While dogs are permitted in the four southern counties, they are not allowed in Monongalia. This quintuplet block and special concurrent hunt option resulted in 109 bruins being bagged last year. It's obvious that these five counties are in the most need of bear hunters per the DNR bear management plan.
Traditional December Gun
The term "traditional" now more aptly reflects the timing of the season (Dec. 7-31) than to the once limited Monongahela National Forest based "traditional" core hunting range of the West Virginia black bear. As the available gun hunting counties have greatly expanded over the years into the exalted realm of occupied bear range, "selected" bear counties now becomes a better term to describe the much more expansive gun bear-hunting turf.
In fact, the majority (44 of 55) of the state's counties now afford some measure of December gun bear-hunting. It's thus much easier to just list the remaining 11 closed counties. They essentially encompass the Northern Panhandle plus a dipper-shaped block of counties just to the south along the mighty Ohio River.
The 11 closed counties are: Brooke, Doddridge, Hancock, Marshall, Ohio, Pleasants, Ritchie, Tyler, Wetzel, Wirt and Wood. It should be noted that these counties are more famous for their deer and turkey numbers, but also harbor decent bear numbers as already exhibited by their archery harvests and nuisance complaints.
The September and concurrent gun bruin five-county group are also available to gun hunting for the December hunters. Twenty-four counties or parts thereof are proposed for the December hunt with the use of dogs being allowed. Without the use of dogs, 26 counties or parts thereof are proposed for the December gun hunt.
With the much more limited scope of the September bear hunts, the December bear hunters should unquestionably make the bulk of the gun hunting harvest, at least returning that tradition to its time of year dominance.
Once again, prospective hunters should carefully refer to the regulations for the county "parts thereof" breakdowns by major river or highway, for example. For gunners, the parts thereof splits come into play in regard to the "with" or "without dogs" hunting options. Six counties are proposed for split based upon the use of dogs. They are Barbour, Braxton, Clay Mineral, Monroe and Upshur.
Dog hunting options are determined by a management and landscape formula accounting for human population, percentages of forest cover and land ownership patterns, such as average size of parcel and other factors.
To wrap up this traditional hunt segment, a look at last year's top five December gun hunt counties is in order. They were Pocahontas, Greenbrier, Pendleton, Randolph and Webster, all of which are entirely available to hunt with or without the use of dogs.
The restoration of the state animal has largely been the result of the hunter's dollar, yet for all to enjoy. If it's a year 2000 and something, look out. Another big season is definitely in store. Good hunting, you've earned it!