Will it be another topnotch season for Mountaineer black bear hunters? Read on for the latest concerning our state's most dangerous big-game species.
By Frank Jezioro
As the bear season drew near last year, there was a lot of apprehension in the air. The harvest of 2003 was a record, but still lower than expected. We had suffered through another mast failure. Biologists told us that several of the bears with transmitters on them had gone to their dens early. We all hoped that these factors were what had impacted the harvest, and that we were not actually seeing a drastic reduction in bear numbers.
With all of these unknown variables and possibilities, opening morning found our hunting group in the mountains with near-perfect conditions to track a bear. We had a few inches of new snow and any track located was undoubtedly made the evening before. The first day always sees a lot of hunters out.
Dedicated hunters who have spent months working with their dogs often take their vacations for the opening week or two of the season. Several hunters I know, who work in the timber industry, simply shut down for a week and go bear hunting. Those of us without dogs know that opening morning may produce the most bear activity, as there will be more bears in the woods that morning than any other part of the season.
The one factor that concerned the gun hunters was the number of bears already taken by bowhunters. The bowhunters had already broken all records for numbers of bears killed with archery equipment. Removing 600 to 700 bears from the woods naturally reduces the chances of taking a bear with a gun later on.
With the fresh snow, our group was spread out across the mountains long before daylight searching for a track to run. Traditionally the various groups of bear hunters with dogs have a favorite section of the mountains that they sort of call their area. Even though all know that anyone can hunt anywhere they want, as long as it is public land, or they have permission, most groups stay within a certain area. There is an unwritten rule among dog hunters that they will stay within a certain section of the bear range, especially the first few days. After that it often becomes a free-for-all with hunters searching far and wide for a track to run.
The group I have hunted with lately normally hunts between Mount Storm and Allegheny Front. As the search for tracks progressed, it became evident that the bears had walked a lot the night before. When we got together around daylight, it was clear that we had located tracks of three good bears. The next step was to split up and put dogs and hunters on each of the three different bears. After waiting a year for opening morning, the excitement was running high as the collars were put on the dogs in preparation for turning on the different bears.
So hunters and dogs went in three different directions. The back roads were slick and treacherous causing us to crawl down the mountain to where a fresh track had been located. I am not sure why, but it seems we always start a track at the bottom of a mountain and every step is straight up! If you want to be in on the action, you need to go with the dogs.
Some of the hunters went with the dogs and some decided to string out along the mountain to watch for the bear to cross. Having taken bears before, I was not interested in harvesting another treed bear, so I shouldered my pack with camera and took off after the dogs. The dogs were straining at the leashes, as they could smell where the bear had crossed the road. When everyone was ready, two dogs were turned loose. They raced away up the mountain, barking at every step. In a few seconds, two more were turned loose and the race was on in earnest.
In just a few minutes, the pitch picked up to the point that we knew the bear had been jumped and the dogs had seen him. Like all bear country, this was thick, rocky and steep. To add to the difficulty, the fresh snow made the rocks treacherous. In a few minutes, the dogs were barking in a way that signals a treed bruin!
Their excitement was transmitted to those of us who were following them as we clawed and fought our way on up. As we drew closer, Scott Kuhn expressed some concern. To the rest of us, the dogs seemed to be looking at the bear. But to Scott, like most who own dogs, something wasn't right. He sensed a change in the pitch of the dog's barks and chops.
Three successful bear hunters and the owner of some of the dogs used to bring the bears to bag are (l. to r.) Shawn Simmons, Jarrod Wilson, Dave McGee and Randy Rotruck. Photo by Frank Jezioro
When we were about 25 yards from the tree, the dogs were barking under, Scott said, "The bear has slipped the tree." There was a big, long fallen tree running out from the side of the one the dogs were around. A bear will often go to a tree like this and then run out a fallen tree or log, jump off and keep on going. The dogs will hit the tree with all the fresh scent and think the bear is still there. This was apparently what had happened. One of the hunters swung out to the side and found where the bear jumped out.
By then some of the dogs had also figured it out and away they went. Only this time they were driving hard back down the mountain where we had started. As fast as we could, we all headed back down, slipping, grasping for roots and limbs and stumbling as we went. We could hear the dogs and it sounded like they were on the bear again.
Then a shot rang out, and then another and another. "What's going on," someone shouted out. The bear passed one of the hunters on a stand and he thinks he hit it, came the reply. He is following the bear. Soon a final shot rang out and someone yelled that the bear was dead and the dogs were at the bear.
In a few minutes, the dogs were gathered up, the bear loaded and our group was heading back out to see what the others were doing. What we found lay to rest all of our worries about the number of bears left for gun hunters. Both of the other groups had run and treed bears they had jumped at daylight. Including the one our group got, three bears were taken by 11 a.m. on opening morning!
All three bears were mature males weighing between 235 and 345 pounds! All were in excellent shape with heavy, luxurious coats. That kind of success is not commonplace, but serves as an example of just how good bear hunting can be in West Virginia. Knowing the area, having good dogs and not being afraid to stick with it will greatly enhance your chances for success.
What can we expect for this year, you ask? I had a chance to discuss this question a little with biologist Chris Ryan, who is our state's black bear project manager on the present Southern Bear Study project. Ryan points out that our statewide black bear population is somewhere between 10,000 to 12,000 animals. He f
urther points out that overall there isn't any shortage of bears. Naturally, the populations fluctuate from time to time and from location to location, and this is why the Division of Natural Resources (DNR) is constantly obtaining data. Hunters play a big part in the collection of teeth for aging and reproductive tracts to see if the bear had any cubs.
For the past few years, the greatest increase in bear numbers has taken place in the southern half of the state. The population continues to grow in the traditional northern mountain counties as well, but it is increasing at a faster rate in the south. One reason is that there appears to be a better and more consistent food supply there. According to biologist Ryan, last year produced a bumper crop of hickory nuts in the southern range. While there were some hickory nuts throughout the state, the heaviest crop was in the south. For all practical purposes, there was a complete mast failure in the traditional bear country found in the northern mountains.
We talk about mast more and more as it is becoming increasingly clear how mast has a greater impact on big game than was first considered. For years we have known that when you had a year of poor mast, the next spring saw squirrels with small litters. If mast were abundant in the fall and winter, the litters would be larger. This is simply Mother Nature's way of balancing the number of animals with the food supply. But now we are also starting to see a greater correlation between mast amounts and bear cub production.
For the past several years, the number of cubs born to each sow has been documented. It became clear that the sows in the south were having more cubs per litter than the sows of the north. Last year was no exception. Ryan said that this past winter DNR crews visited about 70 dens. Their documentation shows that each pregnant sow gave birth to nearly three cubs! In addition, all mothers and cubs appeared healthy and in good shape. Only one sow didn't have a cub.
Keeping track of the bears is a monumental job handled by a very dedicated crew of DNR personnel. For example, Ryan mentioned that they had collars on approximately 335 adult bears. During the year, those bears were handled about 700 times for various reasons.
We hunters sometimes get a little self-centered and selfish as we pursue our various sports. I am just as guilty as anyone. I would love to see the country covered with bears, grouse, trophy whitetails and turkeys. But we have to step back once in a while and realize that not everyone out there feels the same way.
This is especially true when it comes to bears. Everyone likes the thrill of seeing a magnificent black bear roaming free. They like to see it until it becomes a nuisance. We should never lose sight of the fact that the carrying capacity of our streams and forests will only sustain so many of a certain species and this is true of bears as well.
Last year produced a record kill of 1,708 black bears in West Virginia. That exceeded the previous record of 1,362 bears taken in 2002. Can we have a record year each year? Can we let the bears multiply at the same rate we are presently seeing in the southern part of the state? While not a biologist or scientist, I would venture to say the answer is no. It is not because we don't have the habitat, but it could become a problem when there are too many bears and too many people trying to live in the same general area.
The management of the state's bear population is a complex one. Often the DNR is setting regulations for the coming year based on experience of the past year. This works pretty well until Mother Nature steps in and throws a monkey wrench into the process with a lack of food or drastic weather.
While not everyone is happy with the bear hunting regulations in West Virginia, not a person can honestly make a negative comment about the way the seasons and regulations are being handled. Stop and think about it for a moment. When I first started hunting bears back in the mid-1960s, I can remember that just finding a track was a successful day. As I recall, we were killing 50 to 60 bears a year back then. By taking 1,700 bears last year, the DNR plan has to be considered a success.
In this mostly positive picture for bear hunters there are a couple of controversial issues that keep popping up. One of the comments we hear most often now is that when oak, hickory and beech are scarce, the bears will be drawn into the bait being used at deer stands.
There is no question that bears and turkeys will come to corn, oats and apples that are put out for deer. Shooting a bear, or a turkey, over such bait is against the law. Opening day last year saw several arrests made, some of which concerned the taking of bears over bait. This is a very tough nut to crack and is creating a lot of discussion among hunters.
Some are saying that if you are going to allow baiting for deer, then allow baiting for turkeys and bears as well. The other side of the controversy says in order to stop the illegal taking of bears and turkeys over bait, let's stop all baiting. All of this creates a complicated situation and one that is for the most part impossible to enforce properly.
One of the other issues is the year- round training season. As it now stands, West Virginia residents can train their dogs year 'round. Not only bear dogs, but also all dogs used in hunting. Most hunters will tell you that to have good dogs, you must work and train them constantly. They feel that you can't put the dogs up at the end of the hunting season and then get them out again a month or two before the season opens and expect to have good, well-conditioned dogs.
While all dogs can presently be trained year 'round, it is the bear hunters and their dogs that seem to be receiving the brunt of the criticism. We don't hear much about rabbit hunters and their beagles, bird hunters and their pointing dogs, or even the raccoon and fox hunters with their hounds. Most of the controversy surrounds bear hunters.
For some reason, people don't like to see the trucks and hunters out at night. This controversy has been ongoing for several years. But in all those years, I have yet to see any document, study or story put out by any professional biologist that says training year 'round is harmful to the bears and the overall bear population.
So it seems to boil down to the fact that one group of people simply doesn't like what another group of people is doing even though it has not been established that there is any harm being done to the resource. After all, protecting the resource, in this case, black bears should be uppermost in the minds of all hunters, conservationists and those that enjoy the great West Virginia outdoors.
In summary, we have plenty of bears. Will they be in the woods when hunting season rolls around? Our success rate will depend entirely on weather and food. But looking into the crystal ball indicates that this year should be another banner one for West Virginia bear hunters.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to West Virginia Game & Fish