This is not a typo:
On Aug. 31, West Virginia’s first firearm hunting season for black bears will begin, one-half hour before sunrise.
A bear-hunting season. In August. Times sure have changed.
“This is the first time the season has fallen into August, and it’s odd to think about,” said Colin Carpenter, bear project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources. “When West Virginians think of hunting, they don’t think of it happening in August.”
When DNR officials instituted a firearm season for bears in Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties, they envisioned it always opening in early September. Since then, though, they’ve added a third Saturday to the season. The way this year’s calendar fell, that first Saturday had to be Aug. 31.
The season exists for one purpose: to reduce bear populations in those four counties.
“Those counties lack a firearm season for buck deer, so we can’t offer a concurrent buck-bear hunt there,” Carpenter said. “We have to rely on having an early firearm season in which the hunters can use dogs. So, we have it at a time when other seasons aren’t in, and we encourage people in other parts of the state to head down to those counties to hunt.”
To further sweeten the pot, DNR officials offer hunters a chance to take two bears in a single year.
“There are 10 counties where we have a two-bear bag limit,” Carpenter said. “Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties are four of the 10. Hunters can take a bear in those counties and still participate in later seasons.”
The season includes three weekends, yet another incentive to encourage hunter participation.
“We tried to make things as flexible as possible, so hunters can travel down there on a weekend, run their dogs and have a chance to give them a good rest before heading back down there again.”
The weather is usually hot in August and early September. Carpenter acknowledged that some hunters have questioned the wisdom of holding a season in the late-summer heat.
“The answer I give them is that they train their dogs all year long, sometimes in heat that’s even worse,” he said. “As long as the hunters are careful, this season shouldn’t hurt the dogs.”
The terrain in Southwestern West Virginia is rugged, with steep slopes and thick underbrush. Carpenter said dogs can wear down quickly.
“The smart hunters bring big packs of dogs, so they can rotate them and keep them rested,” he continued. “Either that, or they hunt the first weekend, skip the second and come back for the third.
The early season hasn’t escaped the attention of nonresident hunters, who view it as an opportunity they don’t have in their home states.
“I get multiple calls from out-of-state people,” Carpenter said. “We get a fair number of them, mainly from Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina. When folks ask me where to go, I encourage them to take a trip to those counties beforehand and scout around. The fellows who have done that said they have a much easier time finding places to hunt.”
Public access used to be a significant problem in the four counties, but that changed dramatically when the DNR began acquiring land for its elk-reintroduction project. The Tomblin, Laurel Lake, Big South, R.D. Bailey, Panther and Tug Valley wildlife management areas now encompass more than 78,000 acres of public hunting land.
Hunters fortunate enough to kill bears during the early season should be prepared to process them as quickly as possible.
“It doesn’t take long for a carcass to spoil in the heat,” Carpenter said. “You have to get the animal field-dressed, get the hide off it and get the meat into a cooler. You definitely need to move faster to process the animal than you would later in the fall.”
Although the season is designed to attract hunters who use firearms, Carpenter said bowhunters can participate — and, historically, they have. “Some bears are harvested during that season with bows and crossbows,” he added.
DNR officials expect hunters to kill about 100 bears by the time the 16-day season ends on Sept. 15.
“The final number will depend on hunter participation,” Carpenter said. “We figure this season will be about average, and the average harvest usually comes in somewhere around 100.”