Gerald Almy: Bear harvest sets record

Gerald Almy

Virginia hunters who focused on bears last year did much better than those who sought out whitetail deer, establishing a record for the most bruins ever harvested.

A grand total of 2,428 bears were taken during the 2016-17 season. That represents a 3percent increase over the previous year, and five bears more than the previous all-time record, set in 2014.

A number of factors influence the bear harvest, according to Department of Game and Inland Fisheries wildlife biologists. These include mast crops, weather, and shifts in hunter effort and participation.

The recently completed season was the second year with the new bear license requirement. Some 30,868 resident bear licenses and 957 non-resident bear licenses were sold, about 120 more than the previous year. Non-resident hunters were particularly successful. Hunters visited from 30 different states to hunt in Virginia and took 179 bears, or close to one for every five hunters.

Youth and apprentice hunters had a special early weekend in October to go afield. They were successful in harvesting 77 bears.

About 67 percent of the total bear harvest took place west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, including 64 percent of the archery harvest, 63 percent of the muzzleloader harvest, and 70 percent of the total firearms harvest. The western counties in the state were also the source of 74 percent of the bears collected by hunters who use hounds to tree the bear.

Mast production was better than 2015, according to wildlife biologists, but on the whole still rather light and spotty. In most local counties in the Shenandoah Valley the acorn and fruit crop was definitely poor.

“Annual mast conditions greatly influence the distribution of the bear harvest among hunting seasons,” a wildlife department spokesperson said. “As bears concentrate around available food sources, they may become more vulnerable to harvest by early season hunters when food is scarce in poor mast years. They also may den earlier to conserve resources. Therefore years with poor or spotty mast production typically result in archery harvests making up a greater proportion of the total harvest compared to years with good mast production.”

The average percent of bears taken during archery season varies from 19 percent of the total harvest in good mast years to 32 percent of the total harvest in poor mast years.”

This year’s kill fell within the expected range of harvests Virginia has experienced recently. Since 2008, harvests have exceeded 2,000 bears every year. The lowest tally during that time frame was 2011, when 2,008 bruins were tagged.

Due to its rich tradition, effectiveness, and recreational value, regulated hunting is the primary bear population management option in Virginia. Regulations and lengths of seasons are structured to meet the goals and objectives of Virginia’s Black Bear Management Plan. The figures released are only for bears taken during hunting seasons, not those killed under damage permits when destroying property.

Hunters using archery equipment collected 32 percent of the total harvest of bears, or 774 animals. Of those, 43 percent were female bears. Muzzleloader hunters tallied 364 bears, or 15 percent of the harvest. They also had a 43 percent female ratio.

Hunters with hounds took 884 animals, or 36 percent of the harvest. Since these hunters can look over the bears more carefully before taking them, only 36 percent were females.

Hunters who did not use hounds took 318 bears with regular firearms. This is 13 percent of the total kill, and 40 percent of those were females.

All told, hound and non-hound hunters carrying regular firearms took 1,213 bears, or 50 percent of the harvest. A total of 37 percent were females.

Rockingham County had one of the highest bear kills of all last year, with 168 animals taken. Augusta accounted for 149 bears. Alleghany hunters took 119 bears. Rockbridge had 118. Highland had 100 bears, and Shenandoah County hunters tallied 64 bears.

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