More On Our State's Record Bear Season

More On Our State's Record Bear Season

It's a bull market when it comes to bear hunting in West Virginia. Here's a look at why this is so -- and what sportsmen can expect to find right now. (December 2008)

They are turning up more and more wherever West Virginians hunt, travel and live. In the past year, for example, I have observed them while I was float-fishing for smallmouth bass, driving down a back road, spring gobbler hunting, deer hunting, and I even saw one rifling through a compost bin.

The "they" being referred to is Ursus americanus. In the Appalachian Mountains sometimes they go by nicknames ridge-runner or gap-crosser and elsewhere by the appellations bruin, black bear or just plain bear. Whatever we call this biggest of West Virginia's big-game animals, there's no doubt that the state is seeing an upsurge in their popularity among hunters and in their numbers among citizens.

Last year, state sportsmen tallied 1,804 bruins during the bow and firearms seasons. Of that number, firearms hunters took 728, while stick-and-stringers bagged 1,076. This total shattered all matters of records: the largest harvest ever, the first time the total topped 1,800, and a solid 6 percent increase over the 2006 harvest of 1,704 (which broke down to 516 with the bow and 1,188 with firearms).

A quick glance at the harvest tables gives further insight into how much better chance hunters have these days to kill a bear, regardless of how they hunt. For example, in the 1970s, sportsmen killed 14 bruins by bow and 523 with firearms. During the 1980s, for the entire decade only 261 bears were killed by bow and 1,542 with guns. In the 1990s, the bow tally stands at 2,363 and the gun at 4,507.

This decade from 2000 to 2005, the bow harvests have been 305, 475, 726, 774, 374 and 585, respectively, while the firearms harvests have been 1,023, 785, 670, 958, 861 and 1,076, respectively. I asked Chris Ryan, Black Bear Project Leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), why the harvest increased last year.

Ryan said that the impressive kill was based on a number of different factors and they all resulted in the record harvest of 2007. As was true in much of the state, spotty mast conditions helped archery hunters check in the second-highest archery harvest on record. The outstanding bear population and average weather conditions during most of December resulted in gun hunters totaling their second highest harvest on record. Together, these two second-place finishes resulted in the highest harvest ever. In addition, state sportsmen killed bears in many non-traditional counties in the western, southern and eastern portions of the state, and that added substantially to the harvest, according to Ryan.

As is typically true with white-tailed deer and wild Eastern turkeys, when the soft-mast and especially hard-mast foods are abundant, bears are typically harder to locate because they can find nourishment just about anywhere. When the mast crop is below average, bears are much more concentrated in a few places and savvy hunters who take the time to locate those spots often do well.

Another positive factor, as Ryan noted, was that the weather was not abnormally cold. The bears were thus able to remain afield later in the season and did not den up, making them more available to hunters. A frigid December no doubt could well have negatively affected the harvest.

Ryan's comments about non-traditional counties adding to the harvest deserve amplification as well. Gun hunters checked in 173 animals during special seasons held in Boone, Fayette, Kanawha and Raleigh counties. As a group, these counties boasted a 25 percent increase. Of that total, 121 (52 male, 69 female) were taken during the early November season with dogs and 52 (28 male, 24 females) during the late November season without dogs.

Elsewhere, the top five traditional counties sported solid harvests (with the totals in parentheses): Randolph (141), Pocahontas (123), Pendleton (117), Greenbrier (85) and Webster (81). Among the archery brigade, the top counties were Randolph (74), Webster (67), Greenbrier (54), Fayette (54) and Nicholas (50).

Are bear numbers likely to increase more in the future?

"Except for the southern study area where we've had liberal seasons and have tried to reduce and stabilize the population, the entire state is still growing," continued Ryan. "We've proposed additional seasons in some counties for 2008 that are above their management objective."

Was there anything new going on in the bear research realm? Ryan said at in August 2007, the DNR purchased 23 Global Positioning System (GPS) radio collars for the state's southern study area. Wildlife managers and biologists in districts IV and V were pleased that they captured 49 bears in only 10 days. Staff also placed 21 GPS collars on female bears.

The collars are designed with a VHF radio beacon, a GPS unit to record locations and a drop-off device. The GPS unit will record one location every 19 hours from Jan. 1 through April 30, and one location every four hours from May 1 through Dec. 31. A state-of-the-art computer system records the locations along with air temperature, activity patterns and other information.

Interestingly, the drop-off unit depends on an internal clock that will break apart in 100 weeks if DNR staff members do not remove the collar beforehand. This means that staff can collect the data if personnel were unable to change the collar before the bears go to their dens. The DNR hopes that the collar-generated data will result in information on home ranges, habitat selection and activity patterns of female bears. Of special interest to sportsmen, the project will with any luck give information that will help the DNR to study bear movements in hunted versus non-hunted areas.

West Virginia is a state that allows hunting deer over bait. Is this practice affecting the bear harvest?

"We have no specific data on a management unit scale about deer baiting," Ryan said. "I can't say how it's affecting the bear harvest, because we don't have any specific baiting data. I can say, and have seen in the scientific articles, that there is evidence that during years of bad or spotty mast conditions the bear archery harvest increases. However, I can't be quoted on how deer baiting is affecting the bear harvest because of lack of data. Of course, it is illegal to leave bait out if a bear is coming to it."

To emphasize that last point, West Virginia is a state where it is illegal for hunters to bait bears. Ryan emphasizes that strong, scientific reasons exist for this restriction.

"Possible disease transmission is one of the most important factors why many biologists would advise against the baiting of any species," he sai

d. "Baiting practices concentrate many species, increasing the likelihood of spreading any disease that may be present and may introduce foreign contaminates via the feed or bait into the environment."

The above sound reasons should give hunters pause about baiting deer, especially with chronic wasting disease having been found in Hampshire County. I agree wholeheartedly with Ryan's science-based opinions.

In certain Asian countries, such as South Korea, China, Taiwan and Japan, various bear parts are revered, and because of that fact, an illegal trade has come into existence in the United States. For example, Far East culture decrees that bear gall bladders and bile have the ability to cure afflictions as diverse as cancer and erectile dysfunction and that bruin paws are a gourmet item in soup.

In Asia, bears are even raised in pens for their bile, but people in the region believe that parts from wild animals are more desirable. The DNR strives hard to keep abreast of any illegal activities taking place, according to Lt. Colonel Jerry Jenkins of the DNR Law Enforcement Section.

"We are monitoring the transactions from our fur dealers and from information from other states' fur dealers," Jenkins said. "We quite often receive complaints from the public relating to illegal selling of bear parts."

The number of illegal bear kills dropped from eight in 2006 to four in 2007. But just because a bear was killed illegally, or legally, does not mean that its parts were or were not sold afterward. The good news is that as bear numbers have increased, illegal kills have generally decreased, especially the last two years.

For instance, the illegal kills from 2000 to 2005 have been 8, 18, 14, 17, 7 and 15, respectively. Road kills have been very consistent from 2005 through 2007 with 62, 61 and 62 animals, respectively, perishing in this manner. From 2000 through 2004, those numbers were 16, 43, 82, 87 and 55, respectively.

Unfortunately, the number of bruins that had to be killed because of nuisance behavior showed a dramatic spike upward. In 2007, 155 animals were destroyed because of this trait. This high number is far more than twice that of any other yearly tally during the rest of the decade. For example, from 2000 through 2006, the number of marauding bears destroyed has been 8, 22, 28, 61, 22, 18 and 36, respectively.

Chris Ryan estimates that between 10,000 and 12,000 black bears live in West Virginia.

"The forecast is very good for 2008," Ryan said. "It will be dependent, of course, on the mast conditions for some seasons."

Neither biologists nor sportsmen would be surprised if the bear harvest rises in 2008, but again, much depends on the status of the state's mast crop, especially the acorns, both white and red varieties.

Another aspect of bruin hunting that is not surprising is that public land is often essential for the pastime, especially if hunters go afield with canines. Bear hunting with dogs typically requires vast chunks of real estate, and although some farms cover many hundreds of acres, most do not. Thus, hunters typically turn to the national forests and to the larger state WMAs.

"Public land is very popular for bear hunting in West Virginia because of the large amounts of national forest that we have," Ryan said. "The Monongahela and George Washington and Jefferson national forests are major destinations."

For sportsmen who live along the Virginia border in the southeastern part of the state, two units of the George Washington National Forest remain major draws. The Shenandoah WMA (49,106 acres) lies in Pendleton County and contains the high elevations (up to nearly 4,400 feet) that give bruins favorable sanctuaries. Covered primarily with oak-hickory forests, the Shenandoah in good mast years brims with food.

In Hardy and Hampshire counties lies another unit of the George Washington, namely the Wardensville WMA (55,327 acres). A sister public land in both habitat and terrain types to the Shenandoah WMA, the Wardensville offers plenty of the proverbial elbowroom that bear hunters using dogs need.

For sheer expanse of land, the Monongahela National Forest, though, trumps every other public land in the Mountain State. To give an example, the Beaver Dam WMA is the smallest of the Mon's public lands with 37,674 acres in Randolph County. The largest one is the Cranberry WMA with 158,147 acres in Nicholas, Webster, Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties.

Other Monongahela possibilities include the Blackwater (58,978 acres) in Tucker and Preston counties, Cheat (80,771 acres) in Randolph County, Little River (124,483 acres) in Pocahontas County, Neola (104,750 acres) in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties, Otter Creek (68,782 acres) in Randolph and Tucker counties, Potomac (39,786 acres) in Grant, Pendleton, Randolph and Tucker counties, Rimel (67,251 acres) in Pocahontas County, and Tea Creek (49,106 acres) in Pocahontas, Randolph and Webster counties. The majority of these WMAs feature forbidding isolated terrain and oak-hickory and oak-pine forests.

Chris Ryan emphasizes that a number of state WMAs also can provide superlative hunting. Among his choices are the Seneca State Forest (11,684 acres) in Pocahontas County, Calvin Price State Forest (9,482 acres) in Pocahontas County and Kumbrabow State Forest (9,474 acres) in Randolph County.

Seneca Forest features elevations ranging from 2,000 to 3,600 feet. Like almost all of Pocahontas, the state forest is heavily wooded, and the bear population gravitates toward the oak groves many years. Calvin Price has seen the benefit of some wildlife openings created this decade. Kumbrabow State Forest is one of the more isolated public lands in West Virginia, and the bear population there certainly does not receive undue human pressure.

Unfortunately, the number of bruins that had to be killed because of nuisance behavior showed a dramatic spike upward. In 2007, 155 animals were destroyed because of this trait. This high number is far more than twice that of any other yearly tally during the rest of the decade. For example, from 2000 through 2006, the number of marauding bears destroyed has been 8, 22, 28, 61, 22, 18 and 36, respectively.

There is considerable overlap among the top five gun and bow counties from last year. For instance, Randolph, Webster and Greenbrier made both lists. Pocahontas and Pendleton rounded out the top gun counties, while Fayette and Nicholas did the same for the bow domains. The reality is that all of these counties flaunt healthy bear populations, and one is not necessarily better than the other because of the harvest figures.

Any one of these seven counties will likely be an excellent place to go afield this season. And as is often the case, when we hunters read harvest statistics, a county's place at or near the top is often because of its large size. The top harvest counties are often the ones that contain the most miles of habitat per square mile.

A hunter migh

t choose one or the other of these counties based on his or her individual hunting needs. Pocahontas County, for example, would be an ideal destination for someone without access to private land because so very much of the county is either part of the Monongahela National Forest or the Seneca and Calvin Price state forests.

Another county that offers charms similar to those of Pocahontas is Randolph. Just as mountainous, if not more so, Randolph contains units of the Monongahela National Forest, as well as the Kumbrabow State Forest.

Interestingly, on the day I finished writing this story, I went turkey hunting before going to the school where I teach. While afield and waiting for the sun to rise, I repeatedly heard the sounds of some creature scrabbling on the side of a tree. Finally, the sun did rise, and I was delighted to see a bear cub indecisively holding onto the trunk of a dead tree. A sow and second cub were on the ground, perhaps waiting for the wayward voyager to make his descent.

Perhaps tiring of her young charge's indecision, the sow then left behind her cub, and the mother and the earthbound cub began to walk away from the snag and up the mountain. The youngster remained affixed to the tree for another 10 seconds or so, but as its mother and sibling were about to disappear over the side of a hump, the cub decided that maybe the dead tree was not such a good place to spend the day after all. The animal quickly hitched down the tree and ran after its mother and sibling.

When I told my English 10 students about the sighting, they were, predictably, very ho hum about it. Bears are certainly not and never will be as common as deer or turkeys, but this big-game animal is certainly now a major player in the state's big-game brigade. Black bears are becoming increasingly common.

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