In a little more than a week, bear hunting in West Virginia will kick into high gear.
With more than 200,000 hunters in the woods, it ought to. The vast majority of that multitude will be deer hunters heading afield for the state’s firearm season for buck deer. But if they’re properly licensed, they’ll also have a chance to bag a bear.
Since 2002, state wildlife officials have allowed hunters in selected counties hunt bears during the buck season. The idea, said bear project leader Colin Carpenter, was to unleash high numbers of hunters in counties with high numbers of bears.
“The buck season is when we have the maximum number of hunters in the woods,” Carpenter explained. “That’s a lot of eyes and rifles in the woods at the same time. We figured that if we gave people an opportunity to take a bear, they’d take that opportunity.”
The so-called “concurrent bear-buck season” started off conservatively. During that first year, the hunt was limited to just four counties — Boone, Fayette, Nicholas and Raleigh. It did what it was supposed to do; hunters in those counties killed enough bears to help control local populations.
Over the next 16 seasons, the number of counties grew. This year, hunters in 51 of the state’s 55 counties will be able to participate.
“The only counties where we won’t have concurrent bear and buck hunting will be in the four counties closed to firearm hunting during the buck season — Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming,” Carpenter said.
Not all the open counties have high bear populations, and Carpenter said the concurrent hunt will help them stay that way.
“The bear population has really started to grow in the western portion of the state,” he added. “We don’t want them to grow too quickly. So, as archery harvests began increasing in those western counties, we started including them [in the concurrent hunt].”
As the number of counties has expanded, so has the harvest. Last year’s kill of 537 bears was fewer than in some previous seasons, but Carpenter said that had more to do with weather and food conditions than with bear populations.
“Just the year before that, we had 678 bears killed during the concurrent hunt,” he said. “In general, we expect the kill to fluctuate between 500 and 700.”
The key to getting a bear during the concurrent season, he added, is for hunters to be prepared when they get the opportunity. That means purchasing a $10 bear-damage stamp before the season begins.
“As long as they have that stamp, they’re free to take a bear if one happens along,” Carpenter said.
There should be plenty of bears to go around.
“There’s still plenty of food left in the woods, so the bulk of the bears will still be out there feeding,” Carpenter predicted. “Red and black oak acorns are pretty abundant this year, and that’s probably what the bears will be eating.”
A cold snap might drive some bears into their dens for the winter, but Carpenter said most of those early hibernators will be females.
“The females don’t usually start to hibernate until the last week of November,” he continued, “and the males usually stay out for a few weeks more.”
This year’s concurrent season will begin Nov. 25 and will end on Dec. 7. Carpenter said it will be a good time to be in the woods.
“It’s a time when you have choices,” he added. “You can take a buck, take a doe, or if a bear happens to come by, you can take that, too.”