Big-game enthusiasts are still pulling their weight when it comes to containing our state's growing bear population, setting new records along the way. (November 2009)
The expansion of our state's black bear population is an exciting one for hunters. As bruins become more common in many more areas of the state, they are increasing an already impressive slate of hunting opportunities.
Last season, hunters set a harvest record when they bagged 2,064 bears during the various fall seasons. It was a 14 percent increase over the previous year's take. To put things in perspective, the total bear harvest in the entire state in 1980 was 47. A lot of positive things, bear-wise, have happened during the past 30 years.
"Numerous factors contributed to this record bear harvest," said Chris Ryan, Division of Natural Resources (DNR) Bear Project leader. "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 expansion of hunting seasons designed to keep counties in line with their management objectives. With the cooperation of hunters, wildlife managers can maintain or adjust bear populations to desired management levels by implementing appropriate hunting regulations."
The variety of bear-hunting seasons Ryan speaks of includes a dedicated bow season, an early season in September, a late season in December, as well as a concurrent buck/bear season in Monongalia and four southern counties. There is also a zone where dogs are allowed during firearms seasons and a zone where the use of dogs is not permitted. Dogs are not allowed during the bow season. Not all West Virginia counties are open to bear hunting. If a county is not listed in the annual hunting digests that details the various seasons, it is closed to bear hunting.
A total of 447 bears were taken last fall during the bow season alone. The top counties were Randolph, Nicholas, Preston, Webster and McDowell. Another 1,587 bears were bagged during 2008 firearms seasons. The top counties during the early season held in September were Pendleton, Randolph, Hardy, Pocahontas and Greenbrier. The September hunt produced a bear kill of 670. The traditional December hunt produced a harvest of 808. The top five counties were Pocahontas, Greenbrier, Pendleton, Randolph and Webster.
According to Ryan, the tight management of black bears by means of the complex season structure, the early (September) season in particular, is necessary to keep the bruin population within reasonable limits.
"The new September season was designed to harvest additional female bears normally not available in December because they have already gone to den," said Ryan. "Since the removal of most early gun seasons in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the bear population and harvest has continued to grow at a conservative estimate of at least 7 percent per year.
Eleven counties in the traditional mountain range and four counties in southern West Virginia that were above their management objectives were open for six- and nine-day seasons in September, respectively. In addition, the statewide bag limit was increased to two bears, provided that at least one bear be harvested in the four southern counties.
"The additional female harvest should help to bring most counties back in line with their management objectives; however, the total population effect will not be known until age data is available in late 2009. Early hunting seasons will be necessary in the future to help stabilize the female population, which is ultimately one of the main factors controlling the bear population. Without early hunting seasons, the bear population would continue to grow at an exponential growth rate until reaching biological carrying capacity."
Ryan said it is unrealistic to maintain the state's black bear population at its biological carrying capacity, since that number would far exceed what the public would tolerate.
In addition to hunting mortality, black bears are subject to non-hunting-related deaths, which include poaching. Last year, 81 bears were killed by way of highways, or what the DNR calls marauder or illegal activities. That was down significantly from the 228 non-hunting mortalities suffered the prior year. Most of these mortalities occurred on highways. Poaching played a minor role.
Bear hunters are required to purchase a bear damage stamp. The funds from the stamps are deposited in a special bear damage account to reimburse property owners for bear-caused damages. The number of bear damage claims dropped 36 percent from last year compared with 2007, when 221 claims were filed. Only 142 such claims occurred in 2008.
Interesting research and surveys conducted by the DNR -- efforts that help manage black bear populations and help maximize hunting opportunities -- are ongoing. Since 1999, the agency has conducted an extensive Black Bear Monitoring and Research Project. This endeavor has seen thousands of black bears being handled in both northern and southern study regions.
According to a DNR report, one of the new, exciting aspects of the bear project started in August 2007 with the purchase of 23 GPS (Global Positioning System) radio collars for the southern study area. Wildlife managers and biologists in districts 4 and 5 were able to capture 49 black bears in 10 days and place 21 GPS collars on female bears. They also placed the remaining two collars and two from harvested bears on additional bears during the 2008 den season.
The collars are designed with a VHF radio beacon (the method typically used to track bears), a GPS unit to record locations, and a drop-off device. The GPS unit is set to 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 built-in computer system records the locations along with air temperature, activity patterns, and other important data. The drop-off unit, counting on an internal clock, is designed to break apart in 100 weeks if the collar is not removed by managers, thus ensuring that the data will be collected if the managers were unable to change the collar in the winter den.
Ryan said that Wildlife Resources Section personnel hope that the data from these collars will help supply information on home ranges, habitat selection, and activity patterns of female bears. In addition, the project was designed to evaluate movements of bears in hunted versus non-hunted areas. Wildlife managers will be removing the GPS transmitters in the 2009 den season and data analysis will be done later this year.
As illustrated by the harvest results from all 2008 seasons, the highest number of bears bagged occurred within the traditional black bear range of the Monong
ahela National Forest. The availability of public hunting opportunities in the form of federal and state wildlife management areas is outstanding. Here's a look at some of these spots, based on the top five harvest counties of last season.
Last December, Pocahontas County produced the state's No. 1 bear harvest during the traditional fall hunt with a take of 128 bruins.
Pocahontas has a significant amount of public lands available to the late fall bear hunter. In terms of state-owned land, there's the Handley Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Handley covers nearly 800 acres. The terrain is mostly wooded, with about 10 percent of the tract existing as openings in the hardwood forest. Topography-wise, expect to find both rolling hills and steeper inclines.
Primitive camping is available on the WMA, which features 13 sites. Nearby Watoga State Park (Marlinton) has modern cabins that are available year 'round. For more information, call the park at (304) 799-4087, or e-mail them at watoga@ wvdnr.gov.
The Handley WMA is located near the Edray and Marlinton areas. From the Highland Scenic Highway, turn south on Forest Road 86 -- aka Williams River Road -- and state Route (SR) 17/4. Follow the DNR signs to the public tract.
Pocahontas County also has a wealth of national forest land, featuring extensive federal wildlife management areas. The most sizeable one is the Little Otter WMA, which covers nearly 125,000 acres. Little Otter is consists of steep mountainsides covered in northern hardwoods and stands of pine. It is accessible from U.S. Route 250, as well as SRs 28 and 92. Camping is available at Abe Run, Island Campground, Little River West and West Fork of the Greenbrier River.
The Rimel WMA adds another 60,000-plus acres of national public hunting lands to the Pocahontas County scene. The terrain and habitat coverage of Rimel is similar to nearby Little Otter. Camping is available on the WMA at Pocahontas and Bird Run campgrounds. Rimel is accessible from SRs 39, 28, 92 and 84. The area features 30 miles of paved roads and 46 miles of unpaved secondary roads that traverse the area.
For more on the amenities and for additional travel information on the area, visit www.pocahontascountywv. com.
Last December's No. 2 bear kill county was Greenbrier, with a take of 105. One of the best public areas within the county is 5,130-acre Greenbrier State Forest.
Greenbrier State Forest is a high-elevation area, as illustrated by the 3,280-foot peak of Kates Mountain. The surrounding terrain is steep and forested. Though the state forest features both cabins and a campground, both shut down before the December black bear hunt.
The 104,750-acre Neola WMA in Greenbrier County (and extends into Pocahontas County) is a vast area to consider. This Monongahela National Forest WMA is typical of the region. Expect to find high elevations and rugged terrain, with a covering of oak-hickory and oak-pine forests. About 90 percent of the expanse is forested. State routes 92, 28, 84 and 39 provide access to Neola WMA. This extensive area also contains Calvin Prince State Forest. Hunters wishing to camp should check out the options provided by the Blue Bend Recreation Area and the Lake Sherwood Recreation Complex.
Though the state-owned Meadow Creek WMA contains more bottomlands than the mountainous terrain of the previously described Greenbrier County spots, hunters may wish to explore some overlooked bear-hunting opportunities on this 2,400-acre public land. It's located near Rupert.
Visit www.greenbrierwv.com for additional travel information on the area.
Pendleton was the third county to put out three-figure harvest numbers during the December segment of last year's bear season. Pendleton's 2008 contribution was 102 bruins.
Shenandoah WMA is part of the George Washington National Forest. It covers nearly 50,000 acres, and represents the most extensive public land found entirely in Pendleton County. Oak-hickory forests cover this mountainous territory, which provides elevations ranging from 1,250 to nearly 4,440 feet.
State routes 21, 30 and 3 can be used to access Shenandoah WMA. Brandywine Lake and Camp Run provide campgrounds.
Pendleton County shares the nearly 140,000 acres of the Potomac WMA with three neighboring counties. This rugged WMA reaches elevations nearing 5,000 feet. It also contains the 10,000-plus acres of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. The cover is mostly northern hardwoods and oak-hickory. The Potomac WMA can be reached from U.S. routes 33 and 220, as well as state routes 28, 29 and 41.
Log on to the Web site www.vistipendleton.com for additional travel information on the area.
Randolph registers the fourth-highest December black bear harvest with 76 bruins. Located to the west of the previously described counties, Randolph has a significant amount of public acreage.
State-owned Huttonsville WMA contains bears. This WMA, which also contains the Huttonsville Correction Facility, consists somewhat of farmland, a contrast to much of the forested land of the region. The valley farmland gives way to forested slopes. It covers nearly 3,000 acres, and can be reached by U.S. routes 219 and 250.
The forested and rugged 10,000 acres of the Kumbrabow State Forest are located about 30 miles south of Elkins, and harbor a good black bear population.
In terms of federal land, the J. Beaver Dam WMA covers over 37,000 acres and is located completely within Randolph County. The area contains the Laurel Fork North and South Wilderness areas, which add up to 12,200 acres. This is tough terrain, covered in a mixture of northern hardwoods stands. It can be reached from U.S. Route 33, and from SRs 22, 40, 27 and 31. The Laurel Fork facility has 17 campsites.
Go to www.randolphcountywv.com for more information on the area.
Webster County rounds out the top five December bear harvest counties with a take of 68 bears during last season's hunt.
Webster shares the Cranberry WMA with Nicholas, Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties. The federal WMA covers nearly 160,000 acres. Hunters can expect to find mature hardwoods on this land, which also contains the 35,000-plus acres that exist as the Cranberry Wilderness Area. The elevations range from nearly 2,000 to 4,600 feet.
Cranberry WMA can be reached from SRs 150, 39, 7, 48 and 46. Camping areas are located at Cranberry, Summit Lake, Bishop Knob and Big Rock.
Tea Creek WMA, also part of the Mon Forest, covers over 67,000 acres and is located in Webster, as well as Pocahontas and Randolph counties. Hunters should use U.S. Route 219 to access this area. Camping is available at th
e Day Run and Tea Creek campgrounds.
In addition to the normal licenses needed to hunt black bears in West Virginia, one must also purchase a separate tag to hunt national forest lands.
Also, keep in mind that while harvest numbers are high in the national forest counties, there is also a lot of bear range for bruins to hide in. In other words, certain counties may have a lower harvest rate, but also much less bear habitat. So, the numbers of bruins when compared with the available habitat might be quite high. Savvy hunters know that smaller wood lots that hold bruins are tailor-made for driving tactics, where drivers "push" thick areas of timber slashings and laurel thickets, funneling bears to hunters on well-selected stands.
Regarding the campground listings for the various state and national wildlife management areas previously listed, such facilities tend to be open late into the year, particularly ones with primitive camping. Still, if you are planning to camp, it's wise to check ahead before embarking on a multiple-day hunt. Call for information on the Mon Forest at (304) 478-3251; the George Washington National Forest at (540) 265-5100.
For additional information regarding this fall's specific bear seasons and bear-hunting regulations, carefully consult the digest provided with your hunting license, or visit the DNR's Web site: www.wvdnr.gov/ hunting.