Gerald Almy: Black bear, turkey seasons successful

Gerald Almy

Virginia hunters harvested the second highest number of bears in modern history and also enjoyed good fall turkey hunting during the recently completed seasons. First, let’s look at the bear hunting statistics.

A total of 2,331 bears were taken during the 2015-16 season. This has been a fairly consistent harvest level over the past five years. Since 2008, hunters have tallied over 2,000 bears every year. The highest number was in 2014, when 2,412 bears were harvested. The lowest was in 2011, when 2,005 bears were taken.

It appears that the bear population has stabilized at a saturation point. And that is exactly what the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries wants. If bear populations were allowed to increase much more than their current levels, increasing numbers of bear-human conflicts would develop.

From year to year, many factors influence the exact tally of bears taken. These include mast abundance, shifts in hunter participation, weather and other factors.

Mast crops in particular can vary widely from year to year. In 2014, the acorn crop was particularly strong. Last year’s crop was more spotty, with acorns abundant in some areas and sparse in others.

Bears are more vulnerable when food is scarce, since they have to move more to find enough to eat. Archery hunters in particular typically do better during low-acorn years since the bears are traveling more and present themselves to hunters on stands more often.

The archery harvest can vary from 19 percent in poor-mast years to 32 percent of the total harvest in years with abundant mast.

Last year was the first time a new bear license was required in Virginia. The state sold 30,780 resident bear licenses and 926 non-resident licenses. In addition to these licensed hunters, some 361 bears were taken by hunters exempt from purchasing a bear license.

The first hunting to get under way was the youth/apprentice season held during the second weekend in October. This had previously taken place in September. The new dates overlapped the bow bear season, but young hunters could use guns during this special segment. They tallied some 110 bears, accounting for about 5 percent of the total kill.

Muzzleloader hunters accounted for 323 bears, or 14 percent of the total harvest. Some 39 percent of the bears they took were females.

Archery hunters (including those using crossbows) took 572 bears, or 24 percent of the total harvest.

Firearms hunters collected 1,326 bears, 57 percent of the total for the state. Hound hunters accounted for 774 bears, those hunting without dogs took 551. The percentage of females in the firearms harvest was 37 percent. Hunters in the field on Sundays accounted for 143 bears.

Turkey hunters last fall collected 3,283 birds. This harvest figure can vary widely according to hunter participation, weather, mast abundance, and the success of the spring breeding season.

Many birds bagged in fall are young of the year. During springs when large numbers of young birds are born and survive, hunting tends to be better in fall. It’s also better in years like the last one when mast is not particularly abundant. This makes the turkeys move more to find food and potentially expose themselves to hunters because of their expanded home ranges.

In 2015 the turkey productivity index was 2.5 poults (young birds) per hen. This is slightly below the long-term average of 2.7 poults per hen, but still reasonably good.

Last year Virginia’s Youth Hunting Season was expanded to include the whole weekend. Those hunters, who could be accompanied by a non-hunting adult, took 57 birds.

Early archery hunters collected 166 turkeys.

During the October and November firearms seasons, hunters tagged 1,241 turkeys. On Thanksgiving Day, 482 birds were harvested. In December hunters collected 1,041 toms and hens. January’s season accounted for 180 birds for cold weather hunters.

A total of 1,269 turkeys were taken with shotguns. Rifle hunters accounted for 1,026, and muzzleloader hunters took an impressive 577 birds, or 18 percent of the harvest.

All in all it was a great year for bear hunters in Virginia and a solid year for fall turkey hunters.

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