Boone, Fayette, Kanawha and Raleigh.
Those were the four of the five counties — Nicholas was the other — in which state wildlife officials began conducting an early firearm season for black bears.
That was nearly two decades ago. Since then, four more seasons have been added, all of which open and close before the traditional December firearm season.
It all began, however, in the five aforementioned counties, and it will continue in four of them from Oct. 3 through Oct. 9. Colin Carpenter, bear project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources, said the aim of the season is the same as it always has been: to slow bear population growth.
“At the time we established that first early season, we were receiving high numbers of nuisance-bear complaints,” Carpenter explained. “There’s a relatively high human population in those counties, and the area’s bear population was growing really fast.”
Biologists at first believed that sow bears in those and other southern counties produced more offspring than their northern counterparts.
“They conducted a study that seemed to indicate that,” Carpenter said. “Southern bears had litters that averaged three cubs, as opposed to northern bears that averaged two and a half.”
The southern birth rate leveled off after 10 years, and now the birth rates are similar. Even so, the southern counties continue to produce more bears. Carpenter said subsequent studies indicate that southern bears begin breeding at a younger age.
“In the south, females breed at age 3,” he continued. “In the mountain counties, they usually don’t begin breeding until age 4.”
That first early season, and all the early seasons that have been added since, have been attempts to diminish southern bears’ reproductive advantage. Biologists weren’t sure hunters would be willing to turn their bear hounds loose amid the southern counties’ dense network of highways.
“It didn’t stop guys from bringing their dogs in, though,” Carpenter said. “The early season has always contributed a sizable percentage of the year’s total harvest.”
Carpenter said he believes the Boone-Kanawha-Fayette-Raleigh early season has accomplished what it was created to do.
“It has been very effective at helping us control the population,” he said. “The traditional December season is not as popular down south as it is in the mountains. Because of that, we have to rely on the early firearm kills, the bow kill and the concurrent buck-bear kill to get the number of bears harvested that we need to have.”