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State’s black bear population is mind-boggling

March 26, 2011
By Kenneth Cobb

In last week's column, I reported that the bear hunters took a record number of black bears statewide in 2010 (2,392).

This is somewhat mind-boggling considering what the West Virginia bear harvest was 30 years ago. In 1980, the total bear harvest was only 47.

It was 1954 when I read the hunting regulations for the first time. The counties open for black bear gun hunting were those in the eastern part of the state, which included Randolph.

I asked my father if bear hunting was dangerous. Dad, who had never been bear hunting, was quick to say "the black bears we have are really very shy and timid".

He also told me that his uncle had hunted them a few times. About a year before my great uncle's death, I asked him about his bear hunting trips.

He told me that he never got one, but he was with hunting parties who did manage to get one or two in Pocahontas County.

Black bears were somewhat numerous in Virginia in the early 1700s in what is now West Virginia. This was at the time of the early settlement of the white man.

During this period of the early 18th century, black bears were killed in large numbers in the Ohio, Kanawha, and Little Kanawha River Valleys.

In the early 1900s, the black bear was considered a varmint or non-game animal, and no harvest records were kept. It was in the 1930s a serious effort was made to keep the bears from being slaughtered in large numbers.

About 1935, the black bear was officially made a game animal, and a hunting season was established. Further efforts to manage the black bear were made after World War II with additional success.

In 1967, a bear sanctuary was created in the cranberry country located on the corners of Greenbrier, Pocahontas, and Webster Counties.

A second sanctuary of 39,000 acres was created in 1971 near Spruce Knob on the Randolph-Pendleton county line. For several years, bear hunting was prohibited in these locations.

Today, both of these areas are open for bear hunting.

Additional changes were made in the hunting season starting in 1979. This change has probably reversed the decline in black bear numbers.

The traditional bear gun season is now in December. With this setup, the earlier hibernating bears are protected.

Today, black bear sightings are being reported in just about all counties in West Virginia.

Large increases are being observed in the southern part of the state.

In the mid 1980s, a bear was sported swimming across the Kanawha River practically in downtown Charleston.

About two or three years ago, another bear was reported on Washington Street on Charleston's West Side.

With the large increases in the bear populations, some bears have become a nuisance.

These are the ones that damage or destroy property, attack livestock and become aggressive around people in public locations. Most of these nuisance bears are captured by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

First-time offenders are ear-tagged with an orange tag with a number for easy identification and then released close to the capture site.

A second offense involves relocation to a more remote area, usually about 50 miles from the second capture site. A third capture usually means that the animal has to be destroyed.

This is essentially a "three strikes, you're out" program.

Black bears do have a tendency to travel. In June, 1999, a nuisance bear was captured near Ramsey in Fayette County.

The bear was ear-tagged and given an implant radio. It was tracked during the fall to near Carnifex Ferry State Park where it hibernated.

Contact was lost until the bear was killed by a hunter in 2000 near Norton in Randolph County. This bear never caused any further problems after his capture.

Now, let's take a brief look at the bears that have been checked in by hunters for the past 60 years, starting in ten-year periods: 2010 (2,392); 2000 (1,317); 1990 (235); 1980 (47); 1970 (38); 1960 (72); 1950 (32).

In 2011, a bear hunter can take two bears in a calendar year as long as one is taken in Boone, Fayette, Kanawha, Logan, McDowell, Raleigh or Wyoming Counties.

I never thought that I would ever see the day when the black bear numbers would increase to where the DNR would permit this.

I would like to thank WVDNR game biologist, Steve Wilson, for providing the information to make this week's column possible.



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