CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia sportsmen are accustomed to having a buck-or-doe option during the state's firearm season for bucks. This year they'll have a buck-bear option as well.A change in the state's bear-hunting regulations will allow specially permitted hunters in 19 counties to shoot a bear if one happens to wander within range. Colin Carpenter, black-bear project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources, expects the change to have a significant effect on the number of bruins killed this year."We figure opening up those counties during the buck season will add 300 to 700 bears to the harvest total," Carpenter said.Wildlife officials made sure hunters wouldn't kill too many bears by limiting the number of buck-bear licenses, and by restricting all bear-buck hunting to private lands. Interested hunters were required to apply for the permits by Aug. 19, and the permits were issued during the first week of October.The 19 new counties include Barbour, Braxton, Clay, Grant, Greenbrier, Hardy, Lewis, Mercer, Mineral, Monroe, Nicholas, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph, Summers, Taylor, Tucker, Upshur and Webster.Because this is the first season with a bear-buck option in those counties, biologists aren't sure quite what to expect."One thing that might throw [our prediction] off is landowner success rate," Carpenter explained. "We restricted the number of permits in each county, but not for landowners. They won't need permits to hunt on their own lands.
"In past seasons, kills by landowners have accounted for about 30 percent of the total harvest, but because this is 'stump hunting' [without dogs], we don't know what the landowner success rate will be. Traditionally, stump hunters have about a 6 percent success rate."So, to make sure we covered all the bases, we calculated our potential [bear-buck season] harvest on success rates that ranged from 6 to 10 percent."Those calculations were based on average food and weather conditions. This fall, however, has turned out to be anything but average.Acorns, a staple in bears' autumn diets, are scarce. Even with relatively abundant food items such as beechnuts and hickory nuts factored in, Carpenter described the overall food supply as "spotty to scarce."When bears don't have enough to eat, they tend to cut their losses by hibernating earlier. Pregnant females in particular have been known to enter their dens as early as the third week of November.Unfortunately for hunters, this year's buck season begins Nov. 25, the latest possible date for it to open. Carpenter expects at least some bears to be denned up by then."It's going to be interesting," he said. "The calendar definitely worked against us this time. Hunters probably won't see as many females as they otherwise might have. The good news is that there will still be a lot of male bears available for harvest."Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.