Gerald Almy

Gerald Almy

Virginia has long had a reputation as a good state for whitetail deer hunting. But over the last decade the Old Dominion is also becoming known as a prime destination for black bear hunting. The state offers prime natural habitat for bears, and thanks to the contributions of hunters’ dollars, the animal has been managed successfully to grow larger and larger populations of bruins.

A natural byproduct of that is that hunters need to harvest more to keep the animals from over populating and keep them from becoming pests in urban and suburban areas. (People in the country and rural areas have just kind of accepted some problems from nuisance bears and generally try to live with them.)

The result of this successful management and thriving populations is evident in the harvest of bears for the 2018-19 season. Hunters took some 2,715 bears. This figure is the second highest ever in the state. The harvest decreased 5 percent from the previous year, but this is not statistically significant. The figure is still 14 percent higher than the five-year average during the 2012-16 seasons.

The new three-day early firearms season, archery, and youth/apprentice harvests increased over the 2017-18 season by 7 percent, 64 percent, and 40 percent, respectively. Somewhat surprisingly, the muzzleloader and firearms harvests both decreased from last season, by 28 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

Hound hunters accounted for the majority of the firearms harvest, 72 percent. Dogs were also used 84 percent of the time when youth-apprentice hunters tagged bears. During the early three-day season, hunters not using dogs accounted for most of the bears taken, or 60 percent.

A total of 33,115 bear licenses were purchased for last year’s season. Those who are exempt from buying licenses, however, accounted for nearly 25 percent of the harvest. Non-resident hunters who scored on bears came from 25 different states, proving the popularity of Virginia as a bear hunting destination. These hunters accounted for 8 percent of the total bear harvest.

Game biologists knew they would significantly increase the harvest of bears by instituting the early three-day rifle season in October. “This season increased bear mortality and overall statewide bear harvest for the last two years,” said a Game Department spokesperson.

The female harvest was also higher during that early firearms season, at 51 percent versus 43 percent for the total bear harvest. “It will take several more years to determine the ultimate population impact of the additional three-day season, because of variation year to year in hunter success and environmental factors. Spotty or localized food (mast) availability, as occurred this past fall in western Virginia, often leads to higher hunter success in the earlier seasons and lower success in the later seasons,” said the spokesperson.

The early three-day gun season continued to generate additional interest and recreational opportunities for new and non-traditional bear hunters. While many hound hunters took advantage of the early season, the success of other hunters confirmed the expanded interest by all hunters during the second year of this unique bear hunting opportunity.

The three-day season accounted for 424 bears while the youth-apprentice season tally was 140. Archery hunters took 815 bears, muzzleloader hunters 286. Firearms hunters tagged 1,050 bears. They had the lowest ratio of females in the harvest of all hunter groups, just 36 percent. That’s because most of those bears are taken with dogs and hunters can decide not to harvest a treed bear if they identify it as a female.

Local counties yielded anywhere from five to 177 bears. Clarke County gave up five bears, while Frederick yielded 13. Warren produced 56 bears. Page hunters collected 76 bears. Shenandoah County’s harvest was a healthy 89 bears. Rockingham gave up the most bruins of all, some 177.

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