Gerald Almy: Va. bear hunting record broken

Gerald Almy

While Virginia deer hunters were disappointed with last year’s season, the state’s bear hunters couldn’t be happier with their harvest tallies.

Sportsmen and women pursuing bears harvested an incredible 2,405 animals during the 2014-15 hunting season. That is a 4 percent increase over the previous year’s tally of 2,312 and the highest recorded bear harvest ever.

The earliest of the seasons, a special youth/apprentice day, produced 109 bears, only one less than it did the year before. Most of the harvest that day took place west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hound hunters collected 62 bears, while young still hunters harvested 47 bears.

The mast crop was outstanding last year, unlike 2013, which was terrible. That resulted in early season archery hunters taking fewer bears. The bow harvest declined 40 percent from the previous year, since bears had food available almost anywhere in the woods (acorns) and did not have to travel as much, exposing themselves to archers. Some 423 animals were taken by bow and crossbow hunters.

The early muzzleloader season tally also declined because of the abundant mast crop, down by 10 percent. Some 370 bears were taken by blackpowder hunters.

Bow hunters accounted for 18 percent of the total bear harvest. This is very close to the average for archers during years with a good mast crop — 19 percent. Conversely, during years with a poor mast crop, archers typically account for 32 percent of the bear harvest total because the animals are traveling more widely searching for food.

During the regular firearms season, 1,503 bears were taken. This is an increase of 40 percent over the 2013 harvest.

The largest number of bears were taken by hound hunters, who tallied 970 bears, or 40 percent of the total harvest and 65 percent of the firearms harvest. The next-highest proportion of the harvest went to non-hound hunters during the regular firearms season. They took 533 bears, or 22 percent of the total animals killed.

Bears were harvested in 76 counties or cities throughout Virginia. The majority of the animals, however, came from west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, as usual — 68 percent. Some 64 percent of the archery harvest and 63 percent of the muzzleloader harvest occurred west of the Blue Ridge. The majority of the hound hunters’ harvest occurred west of the mountains, 77 percent.

The portion of the overall harvest made up by females was somewhat lower than previous years, at 38 percent. This is good news for the future, since many of those females passed up will be producing more cubs. Unlike most years, archery hunters took the lowest percentage of females of any group.

This was the first year Sunday hunting was allowed. It resulted in the harvest of 119 bears, or around 5 percent of the total kill. Most of these were taken in the archery season, some 59 bruins. Muzzleloader hunters collected 28 bears on Sundays and modern firearms hunters took 32.

Even though only a small portion of the bear kill occurred on Sundays, game department biologists plan to monitor closely future potential impacts on the population of this extra day of hunting. If too many additional bears are taken due to the extra day each week, slight modifications to the seasons may have to be instituted.

All in all, this was by far one of the best bear seasons ever, unless you were an early season archery hunter. In that case the large amount of acorns dropping from oak trees kept bears from moving as much as normal and decreased sightings and harvests compared to low-mast years.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.