CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 1955, when the Department of Natural Resources completed a poll of West Virginia students, teachers and sportsmen regarding their choice for an official state animal, the black bear emerged as the paws-down winner.
At that time, only about 500 of the native-born bruins could be found in West Virginia. The black bear was hanging on to its ecological niche in the Mountain State by its claws.
It was that kind of persevering spirit that made the animal so attractive to those who wanted to see it named the official state animal.
"The black bear typifies the spirit of all West Virginians in their ability to survive in spite of the adversity of people and industry encroaching upon their natural habitat," according to the text of the proclamation naming the shaggy omnivore the state animal.
Today, thanks to sound management procedures put in place by the DNR, reforestation and changes in public attitude about the animals, between 8,000 and 10,000 black bears now live in West Virginia. Populations of the state animal can now be found in every county.
The black bear has regained the ground it lost when logging and farming decimated the state's forests in the late 1800s and early 1900s, jeopardizing the future of a once-thriving population of the native bruins. During the early part of the past century, at the same time its habitat was being sawed down and hauled away, the black bear was considered a dangerous varmint and was often shot on sight.
Hunting restrictions were put in place, and two large blocks of land in the Monongahela National Forest were designated black bear sanctuaries. As bear populations in the sanctuaries grew, black bears spilled into the surrounding woodlands and multiplied. A law that delayed the start of the winter firearms season until after most females had denned up for hibernation is credited with substantially increasing the state's bear population.