Gerald Almy: Virginia hunters take advantage of new early bear season

Gerald Almy

Many hunters were stunned when Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries created a new early firearms bear season in 2017. A few were upset, but most thought it was a great addition and a fresh, unique hunting opportunity that would be welcomed by sportsmen. And those who complain about bears bothering their property were thrilled to see increased pressure on the rapidly expanding black bear population in the state.

Both groups turned out to be winners. Hunters harvested 395 bears during the early firearms season last year, meaning less potential damage to sheds, bird feeders, and livestock.

All told during the 2017-18 season 32,687 hunters tagged 2,861 bears. The regular traditional firearms season accounted for 1,474 of those bears, with hound hunters taking 72 percent of those bruins.

Due to its thriving bear population, Virginia is getting to be a popular destination for hunters from other states and even other countries. Nonresidents from 33 different states bought 1,155 licenses to hunt bears in Virginia last year.

Adding all the various seasons up, the 2017-18 bear harvest was 17 percent higher than the previous year. A statement from the Game Department said that “the increased harvest was anticipated given the addition bear hunting opportunities, designed to help address human-bear conflicts and bring about measured population reductions, primarily in areas west of the Blue Ridge.”

The new three-day early firearms season occurring during the week before the archery season contributed to a significant increase in the overall statewide bear harvest. Also, as anticipated, the percent female composition of the early-season bear harvest (48 percent) was higher than during the remaining bear hunting seasons, with the exception of the special youth/apprentice weekend hunt.

Because many factors influence the annual bear harvest (including hunter participation, environmental factors, and mast production), it will take several years to determine the ultimate population impact of the additional three-day early firearms season. Biologists are not worried, however, that it will significantly reduce the growing bear population.

Coming during a period when deer seasons were closed, the three-day firearms bear season encouraged many new and non-traditional bear hunters to give this intriguing game animal a try. This is evidenced by the fact that hunters without hounds actually took more bears during this early season than those using dogs – some 61 percent of the total three-day kill.

The early bear season also helped fund more game department projects by attracting 900 more total bear hunters than purchased licenses the year before.

Summing up the new early bear firearms season, DGIF Bear Project Leader Jaime Sajecki said, “One goal was to implement an inclusive season that would specifically generate interest in bear hunting by making it open to all types of hunting. Hunters were given a chance to focus on the unique values and special skills needed to pursue one of Virginia’s most prized game animals. The popularity of the season among hound and still hunters alike was proof that we accomplished this goal.”

Here are some more details about the recent black bear season. Archery season hunters took 17 percent of the total bears collected, or 497. Some 37 percent of those were females. Muzzleloader hunters accounted for 14 percent of the tally, and 30 percent were female. Firearms hunters took 1,474 bears, 52 percent of the total harvest, with 41 percent being female.

The special youth/apprentice season produced 100 bears, 59 percent females. Some 91 percent of the bears taken in that weekend long season in October were bagged with the aid of hounds.

As for local counties, Rockingham was most productive, yielding 179 bruins. Shenandoah County hunters tagged 64 bears. Warren had 30, Rappahannock 24, and Frederick gave up seven bears.

The bear population and bear hunting in Virginia are a welcome success story for game managers and hunters.

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