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Hunters experience a record black bear season

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To say that West Virginia's hunters merely "broke" the state bear-kill record would be an understatement.

They smashed it.

Between the opening of the early firearm season last September and the close of the traditional firearm season at the end of December, sportsmen killed 2,683 bears - a full 12 percent more than the previous record 2,392 bruins killed in 2010.

The record-setting harvest didn't surprise wildlife officials, who said before the season began that conditions were ripe for a bumper bear crop.

"Based on mast conditions, the number of available bears and the season structure we had in place, we knew it was going to be a good year," said Chris Ryan, supervisor of game management services for the state Division of Natural Resources.

The heavy snowfall that accompanied late October's "superstorm," Sandy, made biologists question that optimism, especially after radio-collar tracking revealed that some female bears went into hibernation soon after the storm.

"The snow mainly affected bears in the state's higher elevations," Ryan said. "Hunters in the mountain counties reported that they weren't seeing as many bears as they were in the couple of months before the storm."

DNR officials knew the small-scale early hibernation might reduce the traditional firearm-season kill, but couldn't gauge exactly how dramatic the reduction might be.

As things turned out, it wasn't bad at all.

"With the favorable mast conditions and the season structure we'd set up, we figured the December [traditional-season] harvest would top 1,000," Ryan said. "The final total came in just under that, at 990."

The two other firearm seasons lived up to or exceeded biologists' expectations. The September season accounted for a whopping 681 bruins and the concurrent buck/bear season yielded an additional 266.

Much of the record-breaking increase stemmed from bowhunters' unexpected success.

Because acorns were so plentiful this year, biologists weren't expecting a big archery harvest. Abundant mast tends to scatter bears widely and makes them more difficult for hunters to locate.

Colin Carpenter, the DNR's bear project leader, said the hit-and-miss nature of the acorn crop created an unexpected phenomenon.

"The [oak mast] distribution was spotty," Carpenter explained. "This fact, combined with two additional weeks of archery hunting, allowed archers to locate bears effectively and led to an increased archery harvest."

Bowhunters ended up killing 746 bruins.

With so many acorns on the ground, bears that didn't hibernate after the October snowstorm stayed out well into December.

"[It made] bears vulnerable to harvest during the concurrent buck/bear season and the traditional December firearms season," Carpenter said.

The top five firearm counties, early and traditional seasons combined, were Pocahontas, 183; Pendleton, 179; Randolph, 163; Webster, 151; and Greenbrier, 148.

The top five archery counties were Webster, 71; Nicholas, 67; Randolph, 57; Fayette, 55; and Preston, 51.

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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