One thing can be said about West Virginia's bear-hunting seasons: Year to year, they change quite a bit.In 2009, hunters killed more bears during the bow season than they did during the December gun season. In 2010, hunters killed many more bears during the December gun season than they did during the bow season.Last year, the archery season and December gun seasons balanced out, but hunters killed a lot more bears during the September gun season.Chris Ryan, the Division of Natural Resources' game management services supervisor, has a simple explanation for the differences.Mast.Ryan said acorns and other mast items were exceptionally scarce in 2009, and bears were concentrated in areas where food was relatively abundant. Bowhunters took advantage, but gun hunters couldn't because hungry bears went into hibernation before the December season could really get started.In 2010, a record-breaking mast crop scattered bears to the four winds and made them difficult for bowhunters to find. The abundance of food kept bears out of their dens until late in the gun season, and gun hunters took advantage.Last year, when the mast crop was pretty average, bowhunters killed 619 bruins, December gun hunters killed 681 and September gun hunters killed 631.Ryan considers the September statistic particularly significant.
"In terms of keeping the bear population in check, the September season was very important," he said.DNR officials hold the September season in areas where bear populations have risen well above the agency's management guidelines. If hunters hadn't killed that many bears during the September season, many would have survived the bow and December gun seasons - and that, in turn, would have allowed bear numbers in those areas to increase even more.Ryan believes hunters have grown more accepting of the September season, partly because it presents additional opportunity and partly because it represents a relatively gentle approach toward reducing the number of bruins."Hunters are aware of the steps in our [bear-management] plan," he explained. "If a county's population comes in above our goals, we implement a September season. If the population continues to grow, we implement a bear season that runs concurrent with the [firearm] buck season. If it continues to grow above that, we raise the bag limit."Hunters know we have to keep the number of females in check. They've taken [the September season] to heart and are getting out there."Last fall's September hunt lasted six days in 11 counties and just three days in nine more. Ryan said the relatively high kill during a relatively short season in relatively few counties is a testament to bear hunters' willingness to help manage the population.
"We're very happy with the cooperation we got from hunters," he added. "We rely on hunters to take part in our seasons so we can bring the population down gradually and avoid dramatic drops. The numbers have come down gradually, so it has worked."Another benefit to last year's bear seasons is that they "spread the wealth around" in a way never before experienced."Everyone got a piece of the pie during this past season," Ryan said. "Gun hunters took advantage of the September season, bowhunters took advantage of the bow season, and buck hunters got their share during the buck season. We're very pleased with the results."