Thursday, November 10, 2011
Bill Cochran's Outdoors: Boom time for bears in Virginia
Bill Cochran's Outdoors
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- The good and bad of the 2012 saltwater fishing season
- Column archive
Bill's Field Reports
- Virginia General Assembly goes soft on outdoor issues
- Quail Unlimited calls it quits
- Field reports archive
This is a great time to be a bear hunter in Virginia. Hunters last season reported taking 2,221 bears, just 3.6-percent fewer than the previous year, which was a record. Included was a state record bruin.
It only is going to get better. Bear hunting regulations this season are the most liberal in modern history. Bears are showing up in places they haven’t been in more than 100 years.
I asked Jamie Sajecki to answer some questions about what is happening. She is the bear project leader for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Q. Do you think the 2011-12 season will establish another record?
A. Prior to the year 2000, the bear harvest never exceeded 1,000 animals. Since then the population has been growing at about 9.5 percent per year. The last three years has resulted in a sustainable harvest of over 2,000 animals. Based on the current bear population estimate, and if hunter participation remains at the level it has been, there is a great chance the harvest will remain over 2,000 animals. In fact, in order to meet population objectives we hope the harvest will continue to result in this level of success.
Q. Last season’s kill of 2,221 bears represented a decline of 3.6 percent. What was behind that?
A. There will always be annual seasonal fluctuations due to environmental factors such as mast conditions, weather conditions and the number of yearling bears that are available to hunters. In years past these have varied from a 25 percent decrease to a 63 percent increase. Long-term trends are more important than yearly fluctuations.
Q. Muzzleloaders have been taking about 350 bears the past couple seasons, which is roughly 15 percent of the total. This year there is a new one-week muzzleloading season statewide that will include some counties that never have had a black-powder option. How do you think this will impact the kill?
A. We are hoping that the new muzzleloader season in conjunction with the one-week expansion of the general firearms season in Southwest Virginia will help stabilize the bear population in counties where it has been growing up to 15-percent annually.
Q. Bow and crossbow hunters have been accounting for about one-quarter of the kill during recent years. Any idea how they have been doing this season?
A. I really won’t know until the end of the season; however, because the mast abundance is lower this year than last I expect the early archery season will have had increased over the 2010 harvest.
Q. Bow and crossbow hunters reported killing 1,017 bears in 2009, a figure so impressive that some hound hunters questioned if the archers were getting a disproportional advantage. Your thoughts?
A. The 2009 anomaly of the bear archery kill was disproportional to the overall harvest due to a poor mast crop, which helped archers, and rough weather conditions in the late season that hampered other hunters. Archery hunters typically average 24 percent of the kill.
Last season produced a state record bear for Clealen Dove in Rockingham County, who is pictured with the mount. The bear scored 31 9/16 and weighed 592 pounds.
Q. What was the breakdown for all types of bear hunting last season?
A. Archery season accounted for 19 percent of the total harvest; muzzleloaders, 16 percent; general firearms hunters not using dogs, 29 percent and general firearms hunters using dogs, 36 percent.
Q. In many areas of the state, regulations for the 2011-12 firearms’ bear season are more liberal, and as was mentioned earlier there is a new muzzleloading season. What is behind these changes?
A. The changes are designed to achieve proposed population objectives for each bear management zone in the state. Factored in are bear densities, public preferences, hunter preferences, citizen tolerance for bears, nuisance problems, potential nuisance problems and human population densities. Our state has a Virginia Black Bear Management Plan designed with input from a diverse group of stakeholders including hunters, homeowners, landowners, conservation organization, non-hunting interests and agricultural producers.
Q. What is the estimated bear population in Virginia?
A. It is 16,000 to 17,000 and growing.
Q. In the 1970s and '80s I was writing about people who appeared before game officials with dire predictions that the black bear in Virginia was on the path to extinction. Where were they wrong?
A. Bear were thought to be a species that could not survive outside large tracts of wilderness-type habitat. In spite of expanding human populations and land-use changes, bears have persisted because of their adaptability to a variety of habitat types.
Q. What do they need to prosper?
A. Important black bear habitat components include adequate access to food, escape cover, den sites and travel corridors. Although black bears are often found in large, contiguous tracts of forested lands, smaller blocks of forested habitat that are linked by forested corridors also will satisfy daily and seasonal needs.
Q. What do you consider your primary challenge in managing Virginia’s bear population?
A. My challenges are not so much about managing bears as they are managing people. The goal is maintaining healthy, localized bear populations that balance the needs of all citizen interests, from hunting to wildlife watching. It is to minimize conflicts between bears and people by educating the public about bears and their inherent value and diverse benefits.