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WV DNR has high hopes for early Sept. bear season

Photo courtesy WVDNR
Keeping southwestern West Virginia’s high bear population in check is the DNR’s main reason for opening an early-September hunting season.

West Virginia wildlife officials seem happy with the state’s first two early-September bear-hunting seasons.

Based on that, they believe this year’s hunt should be equally successful. The season, scheduled for Sept. 2-10, will be open in four counties — Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming. It is open to hunters who use dogs as well as hunters who don’t.

Colin Carpenter, bear project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources, said the goal of the nine-day hunt is to stabilize or reduce those counties’ bear populations in southwestern West Virginia, an area where bear hunters historically tended to avoid.

“Our early bear season used to include eight counties,” Carpenter explained. “In addition to Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming, we also had Raleigh, Fayette, Boone and Kanawha. Problem was, most everyone wanted to hunt in those last four. In 2014, for example, only 24 bears were killed in the southwestern counties.”

To give sportsmen an incentive to hunt in those underexploited counties, DNR officials decided to establish a separate season for them. Ideally, they would do what they’d done in other counties — allow hunters to kill bears during the firearm season for buck deer. There was a problem with that approach, though; in those four counties, firearm hunting for deer isn’t allowed.

“We decided to put the season in early September, and to start it on Labor Day weekend to give more hunters a chance to participate,” Carpenter said. “That first season, in 2015, we had 125 bears killed. Last year’s total was 108. We were pleased.”

The key, he added, was participation.

“We looked at the harvest data, and a lot of folks who harvested bears during those first two seasons were from outside the four counties, or were from outside the state,” Carpenter explained. “We drew in hunters from North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia, for the simple reason that we were the only game in town at that time of year; we had one of the earliest bear seasons around.”

Another factor in the early-September season’s success was a change in the bag limit for resident hunters. In the past, hunters were allowed only one bear per season. After the change, they were allowed two, one of which had to come from Boone, Fayette, Kanawha, Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Nicholas, Raleigh or Wyoming counties.

Carpenter said this year’s season looks as promising as the first two.

“We have plenty of bears,” he added. “And this year’s season has one more day in it, which should encourage even more hunters to participate.”

Each of the two previous seasons encompassed two Saturdays and a Sunday. This year, DNR officials expanded the season to include two Saturdays and two Sundays.

“Giving hunters an extra Sunday should help guys who have to travel, so we might attract a few more out-of-state hunters,” Carpenter said. “The season is aimed primarily at [hunters who use dogs], but that extra Sunday will also allow folks from down in that area to get in a bear hunt before the [archery season for deer] kicks in.”

Biologists still don’t know if the season is helping to reduce the four counties’ bear populations.

“It will take time for us to figure that out,” Carpenter said. “We’re certainly harvesting more bears, but we’ll need a few more years of data collection to determine how much of an effect the early season is having.”

That data will be easier to get, he added, because hunters are now required to extract a tooth from each bear they kill, and to send that tooth to the DNR for analysis. Examining all those teeth will allow biologists to determine the bear population’s age structure, which in turn will reveal whether the number of young bears is growing or declining.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1231, or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.

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